Describing Obama

How do people use their mind-reading abilities in thinking about others?

Posted Feb 04, 2014

I have written a fair bit on this blog about the positive impact of caregivers’ mind-mindedness on children’s development. Mind-minded caregivers are able to ‘read’ what their young children are thinking or feeling, and spontaneously tend to focus on their children’s mental and emotional engagement with the world if asked to describe them.

In our most recent paper1, we wanted to explore possible reasons why some people are more mind-minded than others. Is mind-mindedness what psychologists would call a trait, a relatively stable characteristic of an individual? Or is it rather a quality that characterizes a particular relationship, such as that between a mother and her baby, or between a person and their spouse? 

To answer this question, we conducted four separate studies in which adults were asked to describe a range of stimuli. In particular, we were interested in whether people described the items in terms that referred to mental states, as opposed to physical or behavioral properties. This is a standard approach for assessing mind-mindedness, and it has been used in numerous studies of caregivers and their children. 

We asked our participants to describe a variety of different people and images; some were familiar to the participants, others not. If mind-mindedness is a trait, then a mind-minded person should tend towards mental-state descriptions whatever the stimulus involved. Statistically, we would look for concordance (or correlation) in mind-minded descriptions of all types of stimuli. If you're mind-minded with one thing, the argument goes, you should also be mind-minded with another. 

Here's the other possibility. If mind-mindedness is a quality of close relationships, people should be more mind-minded in describing people who are important to them than they would be with unfamiliar people. In that case, you would also expect high levels of concordance in people’s descriptions of different individuals with whom they have close relationships. In other words, if you're mind-minded with one significant other, you should also think in mental-state terms about other people you're close to, but not people who don't matter to you so much. 

In our first study, we simply asked women to describe their young children and their current romantic partners. Good concordance in mind-mindedness was observed, with women’s tendency to describe their children in mental-state terms being highly positively related to their tendency to describe a romantic partner in this way.

In Study 2, we investigated concordance in mind-mindedness in a population of young adults, none of whom had children. This time, participants had to describe a romantic partner and a close friend. Once again, there was good concordance in mind-mindedness across these two types of (close) relationships.

Thus far, the results were consistent with both the trait and relationship proposals. That is, we weren't yet able to determine whether someone who thinks about people in mental-state terms does so with all people, or only people they are close to—because so far we had only asked participants to describe significant others. 

Teasing these possibilities apart was the purpose of the third study. A new sample of young adults were asked to describe a close friend, and were given pictures of four other targets to describe. For the person targets, we wanted to choose people who were known to the participants but not personally so: famous faces, in other words. We went for Barack Obama and Katie Price, who is a model and reality-television celebrity, likely to be very familiar to our British sample. 

The other two targets were not people at all. We picked a naturalistic painting (depicting a father and son reading in a waiting room), and an abstract painting. The reason for including these stimuli was that we wanted to know whether mind-mindedness could be a tendency that isn't limited to people at all, but can rather be extended to any entity. Perhaps people who are mind-minded think in mental state terms about everything. Including the non-person targets allowed us to find out.

We found that people’s tendency to describe a close friend in mind-minded terms was unrelated to their use of such terms to describe any of the other targets. In other words, it's not that mind-minded people are just mind-minded about everything. Their tendency to think in mental-state terms only relates to people they are close to. Moreover, mind-minded descriptions were significantly more common when the target was a close friend than a famous figure or work of art. The findings point towards one of our two possible characterizations of mind-mindedness: that it is a quality of close relationships rather than an individual trait.

There's still a big question to be answered, though. One crucial difference between the close-friend description and the descriptions of the other targets was that participants were free to choose the close friend they described, but they were stuck with the famous faces we gave them. Although all participants recognized Barack Obama and Katie Price, perhaps they were not knowledgeable about them or interested in them, and hence included few mind-minded terms.

To address this point, participants in Study 4 were asked to describe a famous figure of their own choosing in addition to describing a close friend and Barack Obama. We replicated Study 3’s lack of association between mind-minded descriptions of a close friend and POTUS, and also found that mind-minded descriptions of a close friend were unrelated to those elicited by the self-chosen famous figure. Mind-mindedness was significantly higher in the close-friend descriptions than in descriptions of either famous person.

These findings suggest that you need to know someone personally before you start thinking routinely about their mental and emotional characteristics. However, the findings also highlight that around 20-25% of young adults failed to mention a mind-minded characteristic of a close friend or romantic partner. All of those adults will 'have' a pretty good theory of mind; the question is, are they motivated or able to use it in this context? In other words, our findings point to a competence–performance gap between the understanding that people have internal states (theory of mind) and the tendency to invoke such states spontaneously when thinking about someone else (mind-mindedness). 

Finally, these findings have important implications for understanding the role of caregiver mind-mindedness in child development. We know that moms and dads differ in how ready they are to attribute mental states to their children, and that these differences matter for that child's subsequent development. What these new findings tell us is that your tendency to be mind-minded is not a characteristic of you as a person—for example, your mentalizing competence—so much as your willingness or ability to deploy that competence in the context of close relationships. Just as attachment is about relationships rather than individuals, so mind-mindedness is something that goes on between you and another person you are close to. You have a theory of mind. Now how are you going to use it? 

(With thanks to Elizabeth Meins for her help in preparing this post.)

Meins, E., Fernyhough, C., and Harris Waller, J. (2014). Is mind-mindedness trait-like or a quality of close relationships: Evidence from descriptions of significant others, famous people, and works of art. Cognition, 130, 417-427.