A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ecological and Social Psychology - Minds as Perceivable

There is a great team working on a social psychology chapter for the incipient Eco-Psych (Perception-Action) Textbook: Reuben Baron, Bert Hodges, Kerry Marsh, and Ben Meagher. I was especially grateful to have others volunteer to write that section, because my views on the matter are too biased. The textbook should be focused on ideas that are, at least amongst ecological psychologists, not controversial. My views derive from E. B. Holt's attempt to create a behaviorism that could capture the full complexity of William James's work, which lead to an approach that might be labeled "Descriptive Mentalism." Holt was one of Gibson's key mentors in graduate school, Harry Heft and others have noted Holt's sustained influence on Gibson, and I suggested a few years ago that there is plenty more good stuff to be found in Holt.

This suggestion was made in Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, or IPBS. The journal was founded in 1965, and the 'P' stood for "Physiological" until Jaan Valsiner became editor about a decade ago. Jaan has been working (successfully) to revitalize the journal by encouraging ongoing dialog, including both comment-legnth and article-legnth responses. A few paragraphs in the initial IPBS article were about Holt's relevance to ecological psychologists interested in social psychology, and responses ensued. The initial attempt was superficial, as it was only one of many points in the paper. A more focused version of the argument (taken from here) is shown below. It is worth noting explicitly that the goal was to explore what an 'ideal' contribution to social psychology would look like: "The type that makes it crucially important that [the contributors] are ecological psychologists; the type of contribution that only someone acting as an ecological psychologist could make. That is, the type of contribution that would allow someone to claim that Ecological Psychology had contributed to Social Psychology, rather than merely claiming that the same people had done both ecological research and social research."


1)      Ecological Psychology is the study of perception based on several ideas, including the availability of patterns in ambient energy (e.g., ambient light) that specify properties of the world, allowing organisms to act accurately with respect to their environment.
2)      Social Psychology is a discipline defined by the examination of things that qualify as “psychology,” but which researchers studying people-in-isolation cannot study. That is, Social Psychology is the study of things unique to social situations.
3)      Many aspects in social situations are not unique to social situations. As such, it is clear to all involved that the standard empirical and theoretical apparatus of Ecological Psychology is fully applicable to the study of some aspects of social situations. Social situations are replete with physical affordances, opportunities to synchronize visible movements, etc.
4)      Thus, the point of contention is purely whether or not ecological psychology can contribute to the study of the uniquely social. It is my impression that several ecological psychologists want to make such a contribution, and that several social psychologists are interested in seeing how it goes.
5)      If ecological psychology is to make such a contribution, it must be the case that: a) there is something unique about social situations, and b) whatever is unique about social situations must be perceivable. If those two things are not true, Ecological Psychology will fare just fine, and Social Psychology will fare just fine, but Ecological Psychology is quite restricted in terms of the contribution it can make to Social Psychology.
6)      The remainder of the paper attempted to work out how things present in social situations, but not present in interaction with mere-objects, could be perceived. I argued that social partners engage in mental processes, that there exists a tradition arguing that mental processes are visible, and that – not by mere coincidence – one of the main players in that tradition was Holt, who strongly influenced Gibson. I also pointed out that there are research programs indigenous to Ecological Psychology that fit quite easily into the larger context proposed. To illustrate this compatibility, I provided examples of intentional behavior, interpreted in the context of Shaw’s work on Intentional Dynamics and Lee’s work on Tau Coupling (see also Charles, 2011b). I also compared and contrasted the proposed framework with past theoretical work trying to merge Ecological and Social Psychology, including pointing out a few past proposals that were very similar.

-------- and later ---------

A summary of the merged [Holt-Gibson] position would be something like: Organisms perceptual systems are capable of resonating with information in ambient arrays that specify the behavioral orientation of their social partners and that specify the larger patterns of behavior into which particular behaviors fit. An even simpler way of summarizing the merged position would be: We can directly perceive other’s minds.


Well, that's it. If ecological psychologists were serious about 'repaying their debt' to social psychology, they would declare that we could perceive minds, and run with it. The IPBS articles have been surprisingly controversial, despite Michael Turvey's claim, at a recent ISEP, that I am merely presenting ideas which "we have all been thinking about for a long time anyway." Other authors in this series of paper include Tetsuya Kono, David Travieso, David M. Jacobs, Jorge Castro, and Enrique Lafuente. I have had the pleasure of a few good conversations with Kono and with Jacobs at the last few ICPA meetings. I hope that more comes out in IPBS, thought I am hoping at some point for something not so negative in tone. Any thoughts?


  1. My first thought; tau-coupling will get you nowhere. Lee's generalised tau theory is all a bit mad, frankly, and so is Lee. Last time I saw this presented at a conference I couldn't believe my eyes, it was so bizarre.

  2. I agree, the 'generalized tau' thing is a bit weird. On the other hand, I think the original tau work seemed very grounded. I mentioned it for two reasons: First, one of the repeated criticisms of the proposed Holt-Gibson merger was that it was antithetical to Eco-Psych in some way, so I wanted examples that were clearly Eco-Psych. Second, I do think that much of what we call 'intentionality' is embodied in the regulation of force preceding and during surface contacts.

    The intention of picking something up delicately is nothing other than - that force at contact is regulated towards being minimal at impact.

    The intention to poke something hard is nothing other than - that the force is accelerating at impact.

    Think about the experiments in which a confederate 'tries' to accomplish a task, but fails, and the experimenter is interested in whether the participant (child or non-human animal) copies the failure or copies the intention. One element left completely uninvestigated is what the participant is responding to - what aspects of the situation are you responding to when you 'see' the confederate's intention. Surely much of what the participant sees is how the confederate is regulating his movements with respect to the surfaces of the environment.

  3. Well, tau itself has a few problems. It's not much of a time-to-contact variable, for instance.

    It's frustrating - it's such a good, straight forward example of the direct specification of a higher order property, but it just isn't that robust (it's scope is far too limited - constant V along a line of sight).

  4. I'm not objecting to the idea you're after, though; obviously, if we can get to the intention of an actor, there must be information for it. I just get nervous about relying on tau-anything these days. It was the one thing ecological psych had going for quite a while; everyone got complacent that the principle of higher order information had been established and got lazy with information; then BAM tau gets ripped all kinds of new ones. We don;t have time to lose fights like this :(

  5. "Organisms perceptual systems are capable of resonating with information in ambient arrays that specify the behavioral orientation of their social partners ... We can directly perceive other’s minds."

    Davidson's key essay "Three Varieties of Knowledge" includes the claim that we not only can, but to some extent must, "know the minds of others" if we are to communicate successfully via language. This claim is made in the context of the process he calls "triangulation", which involves two would-be interpreters of each others language (say, A and B) and mutually perceivable features of the world (analogous to position location via two displaced radio-direction-finders). A key argument is that for triangulation to result in successful (in a broad sense) interpretation, A must invoke two principles (collectively, Davidson's famous "principle of charity"):

    Coherence: assume "a degree of logical consistency" among B's utterances

    Correspondence: assume B responds to "the same features of the world that [A would respond] to under similar circumstances"

    In short, for successful interpretation of an utterance by B, A must assume that the feature of the world B has in mind at the time is the feature that A - based on triangulating - has come to associate with the utterance. Ie, successful interpretation requires that A "know" the mind of B with respect to associations of utterances and aspects of the world.

    Davidson's argument is, of course, much longer (spanning a series of essays culminating in 3 Varieties) and subtle than suggested by this terse summary - which I hope at least captures the essentials (and makes other more striking claims not directly relevant here). As usual, it is entirely possible that I'm missing something (perhaps likely, since I seldom, if ever, encounter mention of Davidson in the mind-related blogs I follow), but his claims - if accepted - seem potentially significant in other mind-related fields. Eg, ...

    Generalizing the specific cooperative action of two persons trying to interpret each others use of language to two persons engaged in any cooperative actions (here broadly defined as actions that are causally interactive but not necessarily in pursuit of a common goal), "success" may again require (and suggest - my "take-away" from Davidson's claim) that in a relevant sense, the participants "know" each others minds. An analog to the principle of charity might be that the two participants have similar enough perspectives on, and reactions to, features of the environment so that each can make mostly correct guesses about the prospective behavior of others. This is how I interpret Eric's quote above.

  6. Charles,
    What you say is appealing, but I am looking for something more aggressive. Davidson's argument sounds like a reasonable characterization of language (we can put off 'accurate or inaccurate' for another time, it is certainly reasonable). What I want to argue is that everything Gibson said about the direct perception of objects and events holds equally for direct perception of minds.

    There are some circumstances in which perception is ambiguous, or degenerate, and we much make an 'assumption' that an object is a certain way. Similarly, there are some circumstances in which perception is ambiguous, or degenerate, and we must make an 'assumption' that someone else's mind is a certain way. However, in both cases, more time, more active investigation, or one of several changes in circumstance would render the situation unambiguous, and render assumption completely unnecessary.

    Having written that, maybe it Davidson is not so different. If I remove the scare quotes from some of your text, it sounds better. Also I would need to remove a few words. For example, when you say "the two participants... can make mostly correct guesses about the prospective behavior of the others," I would be pushing for "the two participants... can be mostly correct about the prospective behavior of the others." The references to guessing, and assuming, typically imply something dualistic, but Davidson might not mean that. (Peirce, for example, would use those terms and imply nothing traditionally dualistic.)

  7. Eric -

    Well, there is no question that shooting for unambiguous assessment of the state of another person's mind re any action is "aggressive". Given the nature of the specific action of interpreting language, I would think it overly so. But perhaps for simpler actions it's a reasonable goal.

    Re quotes: my intent is merely to signal that further fruitful discussion will require that a word be precisely defined. As you noted in an earlier post, "know" is a prime example. However, most of the quoted phrases in my comment are actual quotes from Davidson's essay.

  8. I haven't looked at the paper but the abstract just came through my RSS feed and looked relevant:

    Krueger (2011) Seeing mind in action

    Much recent work on social cognition and empathy in philosophy of mind and cognitive science has been guided by the assumption that minds are composed of intracranial phenomena, perceptually inaccessible and thus unobservable to everyone but their owners. I challenge this claim. I defend the view that at least some mental states and processes—or at least some parts of some mental states and processes—are at times visible, capable of being directly perceived by others. I further argue that, despite its initial implausibility, this view receives robust support from several strands of empirical research.

  9. Andrew,
    Thanks for passing it along. The reference section makes it seem even more intriguing. I should get a chance to read it in the next few days and report back.

  10. Hello! Just got here through Charles's comment on Andrew and Sabrina's blog.

    I'm completely on board with your comments Eric, but I think it's better to stick with direct perception of intentional behaviour, rather than 'minds', if only because it's such an underdefined term.

    I've been dipping in and out of that Krueger paper, which looks really interesting and is reminiscent of Daniel Hutto's "Folk Psychological Narratives", which focuses on intersubjective interaction without characterising it as a type of 'mindreading'.

    I think he makes an interesting point by saying that intentionality isn't a property of internal states that has to be specified, but that it's emergent in an organism and its actions. It has to be defined publicly before we could ever say that the intention was 'hidden' (I guess in this sense, 'hidden' = 'no information present on which to predict future actions').

    In cases where we do ascribe hidden intentionality, it's specifically because we're identified a lack of information and so we have to engage in a different type of activity (like you were saying about further exploration when assumptions are flouted). And his suggestion is that our ascription of reasons for behaviours are grounded in socioculturally developed narratives, which serve the express purpose of resolving apparent inconsistencies in others' behaviour. It's no longer about perception of intentional behaviour directly, but we can still use it to pretty decent effect. These narratives are likely to be sufficiently reliable, as even if they are deployed to explain 3rd person actions, they won't have been socioculturally constructed from complex 3rd person inference processes, but from 2nd person accounts of why people do the things they do. Again, it still has a public basis without ever delving into what it would mean to specify an internal 'mind'.

  11. Yeah... the term "minds" is used in part because it is provocative... but it is not an incorrect use of the term, so I my academic sensibilities still permit it. ;- )

    I must confess that I have not read Folk Psychological Narratives, but I did review Dan's last book, and I really like his stuff. (Note to self, blog now that the review is out.) Dan and I do not agree about everything, but, like Andrew and I, we are inches apart in a world where most other people are miles away. Unlike many academics, I don't like to make much ado about very little, so I think that makes us close allies who disagree about a few things, and Dan seems to agree. You might be interested in seeing how Gregg Henriques makes some similar arguments in his ambitious system, see http://fixingpsychology.blogspot.com/2012/07/new-unified-theory-of-psychology.html. Gregg talks about the purpose of language being "justification" (which Dan might refer to as honestly or dishonestly "resolving apparent inconsistencies" in our own behavior).