The Eight Most Influential Theory of Mind Papers of All Time

These are the best theories on how we think about others.

Posted Mar 11, 2019

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Theory of Mind is the term psychologists use to describe the way we think about other people. Theory of Mind is the basis of social behavior: To interact with other people, we have to have some idea of how they work. It is a phenomenon that goes by many names, one of the most telling of which is Intuitive Psychology. When we think about other people’s thoughts, we are essentially doing an informal version of what psychologists do professionally. We are observing their behavior and forming our own explanation—our own theory—about why they behaved like that. What must have been going through their mind to cause them to act in such a way? It is one of the fundamental concepts of social psychology. 

The history of Theory of Mind as an idea goes back several centuries, long before psychology became a scientific discipline. However, most of the interest in it has been concentrated in the last 40 or 50 years. Along the way, psychologists have come up with a lot of ideas about the way we think about other minds. They’ve found Theory of Mind present in strange places, and absent in places we’d otherwise expect to find it. Not all of our questions are answered, but there is a lot we do know. And the better part of that knowledge is captured in a handful of papers that altered the way psychologists talk about social behavior and the way we interact with others. These are among the most influential Theory of Mind papers of all time:

8. Does the Chimpanzee have a Theory of Mind?

By Premack & Woodruff (1978)

This is the paper that coined the term Theory of Mind, and it’s not even about humans. The central insight of this paper is something along the lines of Premack and Woodruff musing, Huh, chimpanzees act as if they understand the thoughts of other chimpanzees. Isn’t that peculiar? This was one of those moments in the history of science where we understood something by looking outside the sphere where we normally encounter it. Some things are so ubiquitous, so inescapably everywhere that we don’t notice that they’re there until they aren’t. No one notices the background music in a restaurant or café until it stops playing. The same sort of thing was true of Theory of Mind. It’s so obvious that humans think about the minds of other humans that no one thought it needed much explanation—until we looked at another species, and saw how patently non-obvious a thing Theory of Mind is. It’s necessary for social life, just as wheels are necessary for Soulcycle. The origins go back so far, it might not even occur to us. 

7. The Child's Theory of Mind

By Wellman (1990)

The next place that psychologists looked for Theory of Mind was in children. At some point, typically developing children will gain some sort of understanding of other people’s perspectives. The child eventually understands that just because she saw mommy pour a glass of wine before dinner doesn’t mean that daddy saw her do it too. But when the child is an infant, when she’s a newborn, she doesn’t have this understanding. She thinks that the content of her own mind resembles the contents of everyone else’s, as if she were the Matrix and the rest of humanity was hooked up to her consciousness. This essay (it’s a book, really) was the first in-depth theory of the moment that switch flips and the lights began to illuminate the perspectives of others.

6. Empathy: Its Ultimate and Proximate Bases

By Preston & de Waal (2002)

One of the many mental activities under the broad umbrella of Theory of Mind is empathy. Typically, we think of empathy as the ability to understand other people emotionally (and perhaps take on their emotions for ourselves), whereas Theory of Mind, in its stricter meaning, is about understanding their thoughts. How empathy works and whether it’s even a separate thing from Theory of Mind is still a matter of contention for psychologists. This particular article sought to answer a particular question about empathy: Why do we have it? What exactly is it about fellow-feeling with those around us that benefits us? Their answer, which they explicate in 70+ pages of nuance, is that empathy encourages pro-social group behavior. In short, we are more likely to want to play nicely with others if their feeling good makes us feel good in return. 

5. Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind

By Baron-Cohen (1995)

The paper presents a theory about children who are on the Autism spectrum: They have a different set of mechanisms for understanding other minds than the typically developing child has (as described in Wellman’s paper above). This, for instance, explains why one of the earliest diagnoses of Autism is lack of eye contact. The child’s earliest interest in eye contact is born of their attempts to figure out what other people are thinking. After all, the eyes are the windows to the soul. But if you don’t have the same understanding of how minds work, then you’re not going to show the same pattern of behavior as other people. Of course, Autism is a hugely complicated subject, not lending itself to simple explanations or fixes, but this has provided a unifying theoretical ground for much psychological research into Autism over the past few decades. (It’s also worth noting that this paper’s author, Simon Baron-Cohen, is the cousin of Sacha Baron Cohen, who is something of an influential figure in his own field, with starring roles in Borat and the Ali G Show, among others.)

4. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition

By Tomasello (1999)

The argument that Tomasello lays down in this essay is that Theory of Mind is not only important but is the foundation for all of human civilization. More specifically, an ability to understand others is the single genetically inspired difference that separates us from the animals; the rest of the differences we learned via culture. Chimps may have a Theory of Mind, but it isn’t as good as ours. Tomasello’s monograph (about 100 pages long) had me flipping through every page and remarking Ooh, Aah! at just about every profound claim he made or incisive observation he put forth. I can’t remark on all of them here, but the basic idea is that when we understand the minds of others, we learn from their experience and not just our own. This allows us, as the saying goes, to stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from the many generations of humans who came before us. 

3. An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior

By Heider & Simmel (1944)

This paper is best understood by watching the video. In it, Heider & Simmel tell a story about a bully, a victim, and a hero. The catch is that they do it only using stop-motion animation of cut-out shapes (this was in 1944; think aerial pictures of an overhead projector), and with no dialogue. The audience infers all of the social information from the movement of the shapes, and we imbue the shapes with emotions, desires, wants, fears, and personalities. This was a revolutionary discovery in the way humans perceived others.

2. The Theory of Moral Sentiments

By Adam Smith (1759)

Adam Smith is best known for his famous treatise, The Wealth of Nations. He is considered the father of free-market economics, which notoriously conceives of people as selfish and rational money-grubbers. What’s often forgotten is that 10 years before The Wealth of Nations, Smith produced a work that considered the exact opposite part of human nature: We often do things just for the sake of making others feel good, with no discernible benefit to ourselves. In other words, empathy. Smith’s is considered the first modern account of such a phenomenon. The ongoing debates in psychology are much the same ones Smith considered in Moral Sentiments. One of my favorite of Smith’s insights is that empathy isn’t so much based on our ability to understand someone else’s emotions—to observe that they’re angry—as it is on our ability to understand the situation that inspired those emotions (why they’re angry). To put a bow on it, this is where the whole Theory of Mind thing began.

1. The Intentional Stance

By Dennett (1987)

If you want a solid understanding of Theory of Mind, the best use of your time, pound for pound, is to read this paper. All the Theory of Mind papers that follow it are simply variations on the themes put forth in Dennett’s Intentional Stance. In it, Dennett sets the basic terms for how Theory of Mind works: We assume that other people have desires and beliefs. Desires are what they want, beliefs are what they know. And people use what they know to get what they want. There is a whole calculus behind how these beliefs and desires work together, and to perform those calculations is, in Dennett’s words, to assume the intentional stance. I always imagine someone in the intentional stance standing arms akimbo with a pensive, scrunched-up look facial expression, staring into the middle distance at some strange act of human behavior.

But that’s just me. To form your own image take a read through Dennett’s paper.

LinkedIn Image Credit: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

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