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Mindreading and Folk-psychology: A Conceptual Clarification

[An analysis of the concepts of mindreading and folk-psychology; comments welcome !]

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Human abilities in attributing intentions, predicting actions and spontaneously making sense of each others are the most complex in the animal world (Byrne & Whiten, 1988; Whiten & Byrne, 1997). Some of these abilities, however, are not unique to linguistic humans. Take for instance what Stueber (2006) call basic empathy, the “quasi-perceptual mechanism that allow us to directly recognize what another person is doing or feeling” (Stueber, 2006, p. 147). Basic empathy is involved for instance in face-based emotional recognition: from a particular pattern of face expression, we intuitively attribute an emotional state to the agent. Basic empathy can only infer feeling and actions (‘she is angry’), not mental cognitive mental states such as the reasons for being angry. This mechanisms is thought to be implemented, in large part, by the so-called “mirror neurons”, i.e., structures whose activity is elicited by action production and action understanding. It is suggested that these two process, at least for simple actions, share the same neural machinery and thus that basic interpretation requires a capacity to entertain sensorimotor simulations of actions (Gallese, 2007).
Mindreading (as in basic empathy) is thus more basic than folk-psychology, since it does not involve a conceptual framework. Fifteen-month-old infants have an intuitive grasp, for instance, of false beliefs: they predict that experimenters will look for a toy where they (the experimenters) should, given their knowledge of the situation, believe it is (Onishi & Baillargeon, 2005). Nonhuman primates (cotton-top tamarins, rhesus macaques, and chimpanzees; hereafter, ‘primates’) can also distinguish between goal-directed and accidental actions: they inspect containers that experimenters intentionally reach for and grasp but not containers merely flopped (palm facing upwards) by the experimenter (Wood et al., 2007). Hence, even without linguistic resources, infants and some primates may be able to superficially read minds, and this is what allow them to perform basic helping, such as helping an experimenter unable to reach a stick or a pencil by picking up the object and handing it to the experimenter (Warneken et al., 2007).
Contrarily to other primates, our mindreading abilities are supplemented by the rich cognitive resources afforded by a public language, such as a vocabulary for mental states and an ecological niche populated with other linguistic mind-readers that provides cultural knowledge, feedback and templates for imitation (Sterelny, 2003, p. chapter 11). These resources allow humans to go beyond basic empahthy: we can know that Anna is angry, but we can also know why. We are also able to infer mental states from meager or abstract stimuli. After a stroke who left him with a locked-in syndrome (a condition in which a patient is aware and awake yet almost completely paralyzed), French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997) was still able to communicate with other by blinking his left eyelid. Although we cannot infer his mental states from his facial expression, body language or the tone of his voice, it is relatively easy to interpret him when he wrote—thanks to a special device connected to his eyelid—that he “would have been pleased to trade [his] yellow nylon hospital gown for a plaid shirt, old pants and shapeless sweater” (1997, p. 8).
Social interaction is thus made possible both by fast, intuitive sensorimotor capacities and a rich theoretical background. We may infer an emotional states from facial expressions, but we need a structured network of mentalistic concepts—desire, beliefs, intentions, motivation, reasons—to infer that “Anna is angry because Bob wants to make fun of Charles”. In this sense, linguistic humans are folk-psychologists while nonhumans primates and babies are not: the formers, but not the latter, apply intuitive theories to predict and explain actions. Hence a distinction is drawn here between mindreading, viz. the cognitive mechanisms that process social information, and folk-psychology, viz. the network of mentalistic concepts and their inferential relationship. Mindreading is possible without, but largely augmented by, folk-psychology, just like non-humans animal can have a grasp of folk-physical notions like object without having the linguistic resources to describe objects. Although many cognitive processes are possible without language, nothing close to a theory—a structured set of propositions—is possible without it.
Folk-psychology, one might say, is the ‘language game’ of social cognition. More precisely, I would like to add, folk-psychology—as a commonsense theory—makes mindreading inferences explicit. If we would run the experiments by Wood et al. discussed above, but this time with humans instead of primates, we could easily ask subjects to tell if the experimenter’s movement is intentional or not. Experiments with questionnaires show that humans draw a clear distinction between intentional and unintentional behavior and that they show a high level of agreement about whether an action is intentional or not (Malle, 2007; Malle & Knobe, 1997). Assessing the intentionality of a movement involves the ability to draw contextual implication, i.e. a conclusion drawn from an input and a context, but neither the input nor the context is sufficient for drawing the conclusion (Wilson & Sperber, 2004). Turning a lamp on and seeing that no light comes from the lamp, I may infer that the light-bulb is burnt out. The light-bulb problem is inferred from the input (looking at the lamp) and the context (my attempt to turn the light on). Likewise, looking at the experimenter’s arm and the context of the experiment allow one to infer the intentionality of the movement, thanks to sensorimotor and simulation capacities. Humans, but not primates, can also be asked why they think the action was intentional. They can justify these contextual implications. They could say about the experimenter that “She wanted to reach the first container” or that “She believed something was in the first container”. In doing so they make explicit the structure of their implicit social-cognitive contextual implications and this, I suggest, is one of the epistemic function of folk-psychology. In other words, the folk-psychological theory expresses our endorsements of contextual implications in social interpretation. Babies and primates have basic interpretative skills and may draw certain contextual inferences but they cannot justify them. By playing the game of giving and asking for reasons, we—in the linguistic evolution of our species and in our individual cognitive development—made explicit the inferential norms of social cognition, i.e., the folk concept of intentionality.
The methodology of Malle and other social psychologists who investigate the folk concept of intentionality endorse a quasi-expressivist account of conceptual content. Their theory supposes three ‘layers’: a conceptual framework, a set of psychological processes and linguistic forms. It suggest that we all have a conceptual framework, akin to a “deep grammar” for social explanations. This framework is then expressed in linguistic forms by a set of psychological processes that govern the construction of explanations. Their studies suggest that the conceptual framework, its psychological processing and its linguistic expression is relatively similar from one individual to another (Knobe, 2006; Malle, 2001, 2007). First, as discussed above, almost everybody agrees whether an action is intentional or not, rely preferentially on causes to explain the former and reasons to explain the latter. About 70% of the intentional actions are explains by primary reasons: beliefs, desires but also valuings (e.g. “she get home late because she liked the show”). When primary reasons are not evoked, subjects use either a causal history of reasons explanation or an enabling-factor explanation. The first one explains why a person decided to do X not because of her beliefs/desires, but because of factors that bring about reasons to act: for instance, “she comes from a respectful culture”. The enabling-factor explanations cite—after the action is performed—the condition that made its performance possible without referring to the agent’s intentions or motivations (e.g. “she had two week to prepare the talk”).
In sum, the linguistic framework of folk-psychology as we use it in everyday context makes explicit a system of interpretative inferences based on reasons, causal reason histories and enabling factors organized as in the following graphics (from Malle 2007):


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Michael said...

Thanks for the great post!

Interestingly, you don’t refer to the term “Theory of Mind” anywhere. Is there a special reason for that?
When mentioning mirror neurons as a necessary precursor of mindreading, I think it would also be interesting to consider the implications of our (presumably innate) “Agency Systems” (Barrett 2004) or “animate monitoring bias” (as it is called in, New et al.’s (2007) article, to which you referred in one of your previous posts) for our mind-reading abilities. Detecting biological motion and “Inferring animacy in objects sis the first step towards a full-blown ‘Theory of Mind’ necessary for communications of one’s inner representations to other member’s of ones community "(Hurford 2007: 44).
And as it seems, mirror neurons are not responsible for the inference of animacy, which instead seems to be the domain of the “social nework” (Wheatley et al. 2007), although I don’t know inhowfar this network corresponds to the three “layers” of Malle and other social psychologists.


Barrett, H. Clark. (2004) "Cognitive Development and the Understanding of Animal Behavior" Origins of the Social Mind: Evolutionary Üsychology and Child Development. Eds. B.J. Ellis and D.F. Bjorklund. New York: Guilford: 438-467.

Hurford, James R. The Origins of Meaning. Oxford : OUP.

New, J., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2007). Category-specific attention for animals reflects ancestral priorities, not expertise. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(42), 16598-16603.

Wheatley, Thalia, Shawn C. Milleville and Alex Martin. 2007. “Understanding Animate Agents: Distinct Roles for the Social Network and Mirror System.” Psychological Science 18.6 : 469-474.

Benoit Hardy-Vallee said...

Hello Michael,

thank you very much for your comments !

I did not use the word "theory of mind" because I wanted to simplify the terminology as much as possible; I think I would say that folk psychology is our (everyday) theory of mind.

I think I will try to precise the role of agency systems in another post. You highlighted interesting question, thanks again !

Anibal said...

In relation to the remarkable intepretation of empirical findings within social cognitive neuroscience made by Michael, it is possible that those brain networks responsible for the detection of agency (principally the STS, see Puce and Perrett, Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2003 March 29; 358(1431): 435–445)may have reciprocal connections with mirror neuron system along the parietal area, serving the function of a visual "comparator" that feeds the mirror neuron system in order to match the observed action to those motor patterns of the oberver, and then having a responsability with the animacy processing at least when that animcy is esential for further computations.