From family game night, to negotiating job offers, to bargaining with our little siblings, we humans take for granted a pillar of our psychology that sets us apart from our other primate relatives: the ability to read minds (or at least reason through what another person is probably thinking). This ability is called Theory of Mind.
There are two main theories that strive to explain how Theory of Mind works from a psychological perspective (as opposed to a neurological perspective). The first is simulation theory, or the idea that the ‘viewer’ uses what he knows about his own brain to make guesses about how another person’s brain is working. For example, if a child knows a jar contains a red marble, he will believe a stranger knows the same information. Of course, this eventually develops into the more nuanced reasoning adults are capable of.
The other main theory of Theory of Mind is referred to as ‘theory-theory’. It argues that we have an innate folk psychology of sorts that allows us to infer what a person is feeling given a certain situation (for example, a person who stubs their toe will grimace or a person who eats a large meal will feel full). Even if one has never experienced the situation themselves, if they innately know about the cause and effects of the folk psychology, they can use these as building blocks to form further predictions. Though the scientific community is split between these two explanations, in reality Theory of Mind probably draws from a little bit of both.
I consider myself a people person, capable of ‘reading people’ fairly well; for me, the study of Theory of Mind becomes most interesting when we look at its implications for social interactions. It is one thing to understand the extent of individuals’ mind-reading capabilities and another to determine how these abilities affect inter-personal interactions. One study by Paul and Bereczkei looks at Theory of Mind as it relates to cooperative vs. Machiavellian behavior. In short, they found that the better an individual’s Theory of Mind capabilities are, the more cooperative they are; but they did not find the positive correlation they were looking for between Theory of Mind ability and Machivellian behavior. That is, it did not seem as those who were exploiting people were doing so because they were better able to ‘read their minds.’ Though the authors do not discuss it explicitly, I can’t help but wonder if the reason for this is rooted back in the evolution of cooperation. If Theory of Mind were to lead to increased exploitive behavior (as opposed to the more passive ability to detect exploitation), a population could crumble under the abuse of exploitation. Perhaps there is some mechanism that promotes the spread of cooperative and not exploitive theory of mind. This of course is purely speculative, but interesting nonetheless! For more about theory of mind and social interactions, check out this Psychology Today blog post!
When do you use theory of mind in your day-to-day life? Are you a good mind reader? Do you think it helps or hinders your various relationships to be able to ‘read’ people?
- Maddy Ford