Mindreading aka folk psychology aka common sense psychology aka theory of mind is the practice of thinking about others as beings who think, feel, desire, and act. This is very different from how we think of such things as mountains, chairs, and trolleys. Why do we think of people this way? After all, we can only observe what people do, including what they say. Why do we suppose there is something else going on that we can never observe, such as thoughts and feelings? And how do we figure out what they are?

Some argue that we are directly aware of the mindedness of others. After all, we are not aware of any gap between being presented with another person and seeing them as being another person, perhaps even another self. We see someone’s sadness directly on his face. Phenomenologists tend to be fond of this option. The more traditional approach in analytic philosophy is to suppose that we infer the existence of mental states in others, usually on the basis of what people do. We may do so by theorizing about them or by simulating them. Others think folk psychology is essentially story telling.

I have a pretty ecumenical approach to how we ascribe mental states to others. I think we use a mixture of theorizing, embodied reasoning, and simulation. My sense is that many of our capacities are pretty low-level and are shared with many non-human animals. I also think we exaggerate the extent to which our everyday interactions with others rely on sophisticated procedures of ascribing specific mental states to them. To a large extent, we rely on knowledge of social context to circumvent the need to think about what others are thinking. We can also rely on our basic animal sensitivity to the feelings of others, which also involves relatively little theorizing.

I started out as a theory theorist. But I quickly started doubting traditional construals. Folk psychological theory is not a vast body of theoretical generalizations that are tacitly known. Why not? Our ideas of how the mind works are actually fairly well integrated with other information we have, are conceptually rich, and consciously accessible. Moreover, such knowledge does not seem to be of general theoretical statements, but of models.

Models are idealizations that phenomena fit to a larger or lesser extent. For instance, we conceive of an intention as composed of a belief and a desire. This is clearly a simplification—even if a useful one—of a much more complex phenomenon. I think we have knowledge of three very different kinds of models: models of behaviour, models of mental states, and social models.

Models of behavior are based on our ability to segment behaviour sequences in accordance with the aim or purpose that they serve. This capacity is pretty basic and does not require any prior psychological ascriptions. Together with information about what another agent can perceive, we can explain and predict what she will do without imputing psychological states to her.

We do, of course, also ascribe mental states to people to better understand them, using models of mental states. But these models are not as ubiquitous as we are often led to believe.

Just as we can often use more low-level capacities to understand what others are doing, we can rely on social scripts or models to guide our interactions with others. For instance, when a waiter comes to my table to ask me what I want to eat for dinner, I don’t have to think about whether he really wants to know, whether he intends to bring me what I ask, and so on. It is sufficient to know that he is a waiter, and waiters do certain things. Whether he has some deep desire to bring me my soup or not is irrelevant to my interacting with him the way I do.

But there are even more ways to figure out what others think, feel, and want. One such method is simulation or, as it is also known as, perspective taking. This practice is particularly useful for empathizing with others. I describe my work on this in more detail in the section on ‘empathy’.

My most recent project involves thinking about the normativity of mindreading. This is particularly relevant to when we imagine what we would do in another person’s situation. When we use imagination this way we often imagine what we ought to do, not what we would do. This raises interesting questions about whether folk psychological explanation masks a social prescriptivism of sorts.

Read more: Social Systems


Do animals read minds?

Photo: H.L. Maibom, Montreal 2018.