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Theory of Mind

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Corybobory:
I've been reading a lot lately about social understanding and theory of mind - theory of mind is commonly defined as the ability to think about thoughts, and is probably uniquely human.  It's called 'theory' of mind, because it suggests an individual has no access to mental states of another and therefore must 'theorize' what they are.

I've also been reading how it's linked closely to language ability, and standardized test scores in one even 'predict' the other (Astington and Jenkins 1999).

Does anyone have any thoughts on theory of mind as a cognitive ability?  I've heard criticisms of it, mostly its 'dualistic' nature in assuming an inaccessable mind, and that individuals are actually 'theorizing' about others' mental states.

Another bit to think about - is anyone convinced other species show signs of thinking about thoughts? I can't say that I am yet, as there's always alternative explanations for certain behaviour, and no other species can pass a false belief test.

Daniel:
I don't have much direct evidence or many details to add, but I'm strongly of the opinion that everything is gradient-- animals do less than humans do, but they do, in many ways, the same things.

One major problem here is actually defining "awareness", "intelligence", "consciousness", and "theory of mind". If you define them circularly (only humans have those because they're uniquely human properties) it's not a very interesting point, and otherwise I think it's very challenging to come up with a reasonable, widely agreeable definition!

But questions like this certainly interest me, even if I don't know how to answer them.

Corybobory:
It certainly is interesting, especially reading the clever ways to test these cognitive abilities :)

I don't think theory of mind falls into that circular definition of why it's uniquely human (like language does - though I don't think this is a negative thing), and does leave a door open for it being available to other species.  Finding non-linguistic tests however to study it is difficult!

The standard way to see if someone has an awareness that others have 'minds' is called the false-belief test - for example, in an 'appearance-reality' test, a child will be shown a box of Smarties, and be asked what they think is inside.  The child will say "Smarties!"  However, the box will be opened and be shown to have something different inside, for example coloured pencils.  Then the child is asked what another person who hasn't been present will say when they are asked what is in the box.

Three year olds will invariably say that the other person will say 'coloured pencils'.  But around the age of 4, children will understand that another mind might hold false information, and they will say that the other person will guess Smarties, even though they are aware that it's just coloured pencils in the box.

False-belief and theory of mind aren't the same thing however, and a child might need more than just theory of mind to pass this test.  It's still the standard way to test if a child has theory of mind, as it's hard to fake and pass the test.

lx:

--- Quote ---Three year olds will invariably say that the other person will say 'coloured pencils'.  But around the age of 4, children will understand that another mind might hold false information, and they will say that the other person will guess Smarties, even though they are aware that it's just coloured pencils in the box.
--- End quote ---

This sounds like the perspective test that has been used to test the psychological capacity of infants. Put a child in a room, have the child state what is in front of it from two non-overlapping and independent perspectives (resulting in different objects being the correct answer) and then putting a doll that would have another perspective in the child's view and asking what the doll would see. I can't remember the details because it was many years ago I did this in a Psychology module but it addressed the issue of the concept of the self and how the mind develops an abstraction to consider another's beliefs.

But I must confess I do not recognise having seen a lot about a specific "Theory of Mind".
Could you give me the rundown in some for-dummies bullet points?

Daniel:
lx, "theory of mind" basically refers to the idea that we are able to associate having a mind/will with other individuals. For example, I am likely to assume that you will reply to my post here, in contrast to say, a rock, or the "reply button" icon on the page.
Infants first see their mother as a useful part of the environment. It takes a while for them to realize 1) that their mother is a whole, a separate entity (both from themselves and from the rest of the world), and 2) that their mother has her own desires and feelings.



As you said, Cory, the tests are convincing but not exhaustive, and human-centric. If we assume some lesser version operating in, say, dogs, we'd need a test that would be sensitive to it. The fact that they don't, for example, have an ability to guess what kind of pizza I will order tomorrow doesn't mean they don't have some version of "theory of mind". So here the problem is false negatives, not false positives.

I know too little about animal behavior/psychology to say anything with certainty, but I get the feeling that sometimes pets have theory of mind. We know when they don't (or at least when they don't care). Cats, while often friendly, don't seem to see us as more than toys or danger, while dogs become a little more attached and seem to try to communicate-- they may recognize that someone is sick and try to help them feel better, they may even seem to "argue" about wanting to go on a walk, etc. This may just be an illusion, but I'm not ready to rule out the possibility.

This was posted a while ago:
http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/researcher-decodes-praire-dog-language-discovers-theyve-been-calling-people-fat.html
There's no evidence in there that they believe humans have minds, but the not-yet-decoded parts of their communication (the "social calls") might hint that they do believe each other to have minds. As Dr. Slobodchikoff emphasizes, we need to first decode their communication to have any idea what's going on-- as much as they don't understand human communication, we may not understand them. Once we do, perhaps we'll find they've been saying, thinking and knowing a lot more than we thought before. (I've checked out a couple of his books from the library to look over when I have more time over the break.)

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