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

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Theory of Mind and Radical Behaviorism

"Theory of Mind" has been one of the hottest topics in philosophical psychology and developmental psychology for the last 25 years. There are occasional ripples of interest in research at the intersection of ToM and comparative psychology, including a recent ripple generated by the release of a documentary "Project Nim". The documentary covers the story of Nim Chimpsky, who was part of a multi-decade study lead by Herb Terrace, intended to illuminate chimpanzee's linguistic abilities. The documentary focuses on ethical issues and on the narrative story arc of Nim's life. Herb has complained that the documentary under-emphasizes the scientific side of Nim's story --- which they the director interviewed him about extensively, then cut --- and has been attempting to remind people about the scientific importance of the study, emphasizing:
Nim’s inability to learn a language deepened our understanding of the basic difference between human and ape minds. Most important, apes lack a “theory of mind” – the ability to perceive what another ape is thinking.
I have done some research on the periphery of the "ToM" literature, have reviewed to books in the field --- Doherty's very mainstream "Theory of Mind: How children understand others' thoughts and feelings" and Leudar & Costall's quite aggressive "Against theory of mind" --- and I have given feedback to publishers on a handful of book proposals. I also engaged in a back and forth with Herb and other scholars on a comparative psychology list serve last July. The ensuing discussion apparently interested people enough to garner an invitation to take part in a focus session that will follow Herb's keynote address at a conference this coming weekend. (These often become a special issue of the International Journal of Comparative Psychology, such as the current issue on the relationship between learning and cognition.)

My goal is to present how ToM can be understood from the point of view promoted on this blog, because it is exactly the type of topic that most people think this type of approach can not deal with. Below are excerpts from my past writing on the subject, cleaned up and arranged in what is starting to seem like a sensible presentation order, i.e., a preview of the talk. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.


The Ecological-Behavioral-Jamesian Research Program Raises Difficult Questions for "Theory of Mind"

What is the ‘Theory of Mind’ literature about?
“Theory of Mind” is popular concept in psychology; it is ubiquitous in the developmental-psychology literature, and has inspired much activity amongst comparative psychologists. Alas, the very phrase itself is quite misleading. Judging the phrase on out of context, one might think that the “theory of mind” (ToM) literature would critically discuss theories about the nature of the mind, delving into the myriad of ways in which philosophers and psychologists have conceived of the “mind” and mental processes, from the most generous to the most eliminative. That would be a fascinating field, as many of the greatest minds in history have turned their efforts towards such problems, and the history of psychology has produced some great insights into how our understandings of mental phenomena have changed over time (e.g. Kurt Danziger’s books). Alas, none of this is discussed in the ToM literature. It is simply assumed that people have minds, in the traditional dualistic sense. As in traditional, Cartesian dualism, it is taken for granted that 'I' (i.e., my mind) knows its self pretty much perfectly, but that I cannot really know anything about 'you' (i.e. your mind). What is happening, then, when I think I know something about you? Sticking to dualism, but upgrading to a bit of modern terminology, we start talking about representations and mental models. It is assumed that anything I-think-I-know-about-you is really knowledge of a model-of-you that I have constructed inside my own mind. Nothing of you is known directly, only my representation of you is known. The key elements of this mental model are supposed to be 'theories' about why you do the things you do, theories about thinking, feeling, etc. Thus, it is said that I have a ‘theory of (your) mind’. To phrase that another way, 'Theory of Mind' is the hypothesis that, to me, your mind nothing but a (pseudo?) scientific theory, a set of postulates from which I may draw logical conjectures.
Like I said, misleading. Further, to be clear, "Theory of mind," by this technical usage, is not something someone has, it is something someone does. ToM is a talent, rather than a possession.
The literature, is thus about testing different ideas for what your mental models of other people’s minds are like, testing different ideas about which types of animals have theories about other’s minds, and how those theories develop throughout childhood. I am more than willing to admit that several researchers in the field are engaged in clever and thorough empirical work, and I am often impressed by the ingenuity of their studies (see, for example, Doherty, 2009).

How does the ‘Theory of Mind’ literature beg the question?
As was stated, the ToM literature takes all of its basic, dualistic premises for granted. There is no effort, whatsoever, to empirically demonstrate that my knowledge of your mind constitutes a “theory” in any proper sense of the term. In fact, it is unclear whether most researchers even begin to appreciate the amount of conceptual baggage such an approach carries, or that other alternatives are available. There seems a distinct ignorance of, or willful disregard of, the several hundred years’ worth of arguments and evidence against claims that human action must be explained by reference to a representational, subjective, mental-model or inferential-theory about events going on inside the “mind,” “soul,” or “spirit.” Note, I am not saying that such arguments are judged and found wanting, a position I (and other critics) would disagree with, but could respect. Rather, potentially deep and fundamental flaws in the ToM research program are ignored completely.
Alas, the logic underlying ToM is an easy extension of much of standard western philosophy and psychology. Thus, the ToM argument seems very intuitive, and its problems are not obvious until one thinks deeply about the claims being made. As Thompson explains it, the problems with the representative theory of mind do not become apparent until one is deeply entrenched in the system, whereas problems with alternative approaches, though fewer and more minor, are often evident at the start.
With dualistic mentalism, the problems come much later in the game. It’s not until someone has taken a deep draught of the mentalistic KoolAid that they realize, "What? Are you telling me that you always know your mind better than I do? What about last Thursday.....? Oh, and by the way, when you speak of your own mind, whose is the mind that is speaking of your mind? And how, exactly does your mind come to know itself?” (Thompson & Charles, 2011)

As you might expect, I will be critiquing the ToM literature from the point of view of radical behaviorism – not Watsonian-style reductive or eliminative behaviorism, but a molar, descriptive behaviorism in the style developed from the late work of William James and his student E. B. Holt. However, you do not have to be a behaviorist to be suspicious about ToM. Indeed, Leudar and Costall recently came out with an excellent edited volume that presented challenges to the logic of ToM based on the more dynamic and inclusive approaches to psychology: “Socio-cultural, Dialogical, Discursive, Historical and Ecological psychologies” (Leudar & Costall, 2009, p. 15). Each of these approaches, in its own way, leads one to think that ToM-talk obscures the real research questions psychologists should be concerned with.

What are the real research questions?
Let us get more concrete: Human children, from a relatively early age, will complete a task that a human model intended to complete, but failed at. For example, if an adult human attempts to place a ball in a cup, but fails, a child who has been rewarded for imitation in the past will place the ball in the cup, rather than dropping it as the model did. In contrast, a chimpanzee, of any age, does not put the ball in the cup more often than would be expected by chance. How should this discrepancy be investigated?
Ultimately, when people get their heads straight about these issues, we will see that these are classic psychological questions about what aspects of the world people respond to. When we see someone as 'intending' to place a ball in a cup, and imitate them despite their failure to complete the action, there is something about the topology of their actions that we have responded to. When a chimp fails to see someone as 'intending' to place a ball in a cup, and fails to imitate the incomplete action, the chimp has failed to respond to those particular details of the action. It is a problem of discrimination, the old problem of perceptual learning – the problem of understanding how organisms develop sensitivity to the finer details of a situation (e.g., Gibson and Gibson, 1955). The interesting empirical task, completely unasked in the ToM literature, is a) identifying the aspects of the situation that the human child is responding to, b) determining how the child came to respond to those variables, and, perhaps, c) determining if the chimp could learn to respond to them.
This gets us to the heart of the strong behaviorist challenge to psychology, the challenge so often overlooked: All questions about psychology are properly understood as questions about behavior.
"Having a theory of mind" is nothing other than acting as if someone else has a mind.  And "acting as if someone else has a mind" is nothing other than acting as a reliable function of certain external happenings.

Some examples for discussion: 
  • A child I witnessed learning “ToM”: The child was almost 3, and he was playing with a kitten. The kitten was on the ground floor of the home, and the child moved between the ground floor and a balcony overlooking the room. He was playing a game where he would drop a feathered ball off of the balcony, and the cat would pounce. This elicited squeals of joy from the child, he would run downstairs, get the ball, and return to the balcony to drop again. Over the course of a few hours, the child occasionally dropped the ball and the cat did not pounce. On these occasions, the child would get quite frustrated, yell at the cat, and start to tantrum. Eventually an adult walked over to the child and explained that the kitten would not pounce if it did not see the ball fall, and so the child had to wait until the kitten was looking towards where the ball would land. The child dropped the ball at the wrong time twice more after that talk, and then proceeded to go over an hour more without another error, pausing when necessary until the cat was looking in the needed direction.
That is it; that is what “ToM” is about. Does the child need an internal working model of the cat as perceiving organism, with its own mental states? No. Does the child need to behave as a function of the direction of the cat’s head? Yes. I witnessed the phenomenon that ToM researchers claim to be interested in, a learning to behave as if other organisms have a unique point of view – I witnessed behavior becoming a function of the attentional state of another organism. Amazingly, chimpanzees, even in adulthood do not seem to master this sort of task (see Povinelli & Eddy, 2000). Nothing is served by ignoring the environmental factors that support such behaviors in humans. 
  • Insight from high-functioning individuals with autism: This interpretation is in line with Williams’s (2010) analysis of the connection between ToM and autism. She argues that normally developed adults do not need to “theorize” about other people’s minds, in the sense the ToM literature suggests, and provides as evidence the fact that people with autism do seem to need such theorizing! Analyzing autobiographical writings of high-functioning individuals, she finds much explicit theorizing about other people’s minds. For example, one diary author note the attention that office mates are giving a co-worker—What is it that the co-worker is doing that the office mates are responding to, but that I am not noticing? Is she sad? That might explain the sulking. Is she angry? There were tears, but tears do not usually go with anger. I wish I could tell.—While such explicit experiences also occur in normally developed individuals (or at least in this reviewer), they are comparatively rare, as normal socio-cultural development render such intellectualization totally unnecessary in typical interactions. 

  • The dynamics of boxing and dueling light sabers (from Charles, 2011): Looking at the dynamics of combat on a different time scale, Hristovski, Davids, & Araújo (2006) analyzed experienced boxers using dynamic systems modeling. They found that, “Affordances of different hitting actions [jab, uppercut, etc.] emerge in martial arts such as boxing, constrained by the scaling of athlete positioning and arm segment dimensions with reference to the target.” (p. 413). They showed that the probability of different types of punches depended upon the distance between puncher and target (punching bag), and that the probability correlated highly with the perceived efficiency of the different punches at those distances…. Further, the researchers showed that the boxers effectively randomized their attacks at ranges that allowed multiple strikes, making their actions difficult to predict. In this case one can objectively see that the boxer intends to impact maximal force into the punching bag and intends to be deceptive with regards to the form of the next strike in a sequence of punches… 
To make the contrast with inexperienced fighters more vivid, imagine how the above analysis might compare to a similar study of children who, with sticks in hand, are pretending to “fight” with light-sabers or swords. In such a situation, the intentionality of the “combatants” is different. A casual analysis similar to that offered for the boxing would typically reveal that the children are, in fact, merely trying to hit the sticks together. The sequences of attacks will be highly predictable, with the most common pattern being a simple right-left-right-left sequence of swings, with the sticks banging in the middle each time. These strikes will not vary in accordance to the distance between the participants, and certainly will not be limited to distances at which you could maximize the force of such strikes…. The intention to bang sticks together is easily distinguished from the intention to hit your opponent.

Comparing the two situations, the intention of the boxers or the playing children is clearly nothing more that the actions themselves in context. Intention is not some incorporeal mental thing happening before the actions, nor in parallel with the actions. The intention is fully embodied, and no amount of objection by the actor, if justified merely by their purportedly privileged introspection, can counter the evidence visible to anyone with the vantage point and discriminative expertise to observe it.

I urge you to consider the position that I have advocated for. It is very different from the traditional way of thinking about minds – mental processes, mental states, or whatever you might like to call them – but different in a way that conforms to our intuition. Our intuition is that perception supports social interaction in as thorough a way as perception supports physical interaction: perception, direct perception, perception without inference or re-presentations, perception as a process of continuous interaction with the rest of the world. Just as perception during social interaction is replete with challenges, so is perception during physical interaction. Though ecological psychologists have a well-developed science of perception during physical interaction, we have been taught from a very early age that the challenges presented by social interaction fundamentally different. But what if the challenges are the same? What if the challenges involved in knowing how to catch a fly ball are not fundamentally different from the challenges of knowing if a lover is acting deceptively, knowing when a potential predator is hungry or satiated, or knowing when two combatants intend to hurt each other? What if deception, hunger, intention, and all variety of mental types – kinds, processes, states, what have you – are perceivable properties of other organisms? Well, then social situations entail all the same challenges of attuning to the proper information that Ecological Psychologists have been studying for decades. All we need to do to get to Holt’s position is to accept that premise, to assume that the challenges presented in social situations are of exactly the same kind as the challenges presented in interaction with mere objects. Why would we, as ecological psychologists, do otherwise? (Charles, 2012)

How about a final parting shot?
In conclusion, I cannot help but mention one of the most provocative parts of Leudar and Costall’s book. They argue that ToM-talk, when examined historically, can be viewed as a projection onto the general public of the constraints commonly self-imposed by research psychologists. That is, the modern experimental psychologist does, in fact, theorize about other minds – they are continuously faced with the problem of how to know the minds of their subjects without interacting with them or otherwise getting to know them personally. The resulting suggestion that ToM-talk is akin to a Freudian neurosis is tantalizing.

Charles, E. P. (2010). Myths and missteps in “theory of mind” dogma. [Review of the book Against Theory of Mind]. PsychCRITIQUES, 55.  
Charles, E. P. (2011). Ecological psychology and social psychology: It is Holt or nothing! Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Sciences.
Charles, E. P. (2012). Ecological psychology and social psychology: Continueing discussion. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Sciences.
Charles, E. P., Singer, M., & Lee, R. (2010, November). The Geometry of Emotion Attribution: A Preliminary Report. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology, San Diego, California.
Doherty, M. J. (2009). Theory of Mind: How Children Understand Others’ Thought and Feelings. New York: Psychology Press.
Gibson, J. J., & Gibson, E. J. (1955). Perceptual learning: Differentiation or enrichment. Psychological Review, 62, 32-41.
Hristovski, Davids, & Araújo (2006) Hristovski, Robert; Affordance controlled bifurcations of action patterns in martial arts. Nonlinear Dynamics Psychology, and Life Sciences, 10, 409-444.
Leudar, I., &, Costall, A. (2009). Against Theory of Mind. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Povinelli, D., & Eddy, T. (2000). What Young Chimpanzees Know about Seeing. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
Thompson, N. S., & Charles, E. P. (2012). Interview with an old new realist. In E. P. Charles (Ed.), A New Look at New Realism: E. B. Holt Reconsidered. Piscataway, NJ: Transactions Publishers.
Williams (2009). In I. Leudar, & A. Costall (Eds.) Against Theory of Mind. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


  1. Eric - I like this argument. A lot. Of course, when I meet you in the mailroom (well, OK, given that Altoona is far from Woostah, let's say I meet your custom-made in the mailroom), I don't need no blasted theory of mind to respond "Good, thanks, and how are you?" to your "Hi, Nik, how are you?.
    BUT: if that same thing happened five years ago, I'd be in trouble, and I'd need to do quite a bit of theorizing on my part to figure out what the hell you mean by asking me "How are you?". In Russia that's an invitation to a vodka psychotherapy session. (OK, I knew that five year, you'd need my avatar too, but that's not the point, of course.)
    So - perhaps the point is to conceive of ToM as a fairly cirsumscribed and special mode of 'mental' activity (whatever, call it neural activity, that would be closer to an extended sense of 'behavior') that
    A) is relatively limited to specific situations (e.g. ambiguity/confusion in interpersonal relations or the analytic stance of a police investigator figuring out the initial position of vehicles before a traffic accident)
    B) is by no means similar to the kind of things kids learn to do when they learn to manage social interactions or, for that matter, the kind of thing I learned once in my life that allowed me to respond "fine, thanks, and you?" without even bothering to engage in any theorizing about your avatar's intent in asking the the initial question. (I.e. - any other kind of perceptual learning, such as learning touch-typing - ow,crap, i just spoiled my smooth typing by engaging in a ToK, Theory of Keyboard, that is, trying to remember where the letter 'i' was on the keyboard.)

  2. Hmm.... Nikita had posted something here, but then it went away. I'm not sure what happened. At any rate, part of it said:


    So... perhaps the point is to conceive of ToM as a fairly cirsumscribed and special mode of 'mental' activity that
    A) is relatively limited to specific situations (e.g. ambiguity/confusion in interpersonal relations or the analytic stance of a police investigator figuring out the initial position of vehicles before a traffic accident)
    B) is by no means similar to the kind of things kids learn to do when they learn to manage social interactions

    To which I reply:


    Leudar and Costall's book hammers that home very well. Highly recommended read for all the cultural psych people.

    I want to add to that the behaviorist insight, which is that in coming to pass "ToM tests", the child is coming to respond to perceivable nuances of the situation. --- And I don't mean that as idle philosophical speculation. I mean that as an empirical challenge.

    If we are really interested in the development of these skills, and in identifying which animals (and which people) can or cannot do them - and especially if we are interested in helping people who are not particularly good at these skills - then we need to put in the research hours to identify those aspects of the world that successful people are responding to.

    1. Thanks for making me get rid of five more pizzas :)

  3. Looking back at the chapter from the second example above, to get more details:

    Citation -
    Williams, E. (2009). Who really needs a 'theory' of mind?: Insights into the development of social understanding drawn from the autobiographical writings of high-functioning individuals with an autism spectrum disorder. In I. Leudar & A. Costall (Eds.) Against Theory of Mind. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    The chapter is full of quotes from diaries or autobiographies of high-function autistic people. The quotes that seem most pertinent here are:

    1) From Liane Temple Grandin (1996, p. 91)-
    "During the last couple of years I have become more aware of a kind of electricity that goes on between people, which is much subtler than over anger, happiness, or fear. I have observed that when several people are together and having a good time, then speech, and laughter follow a rhythm.... The problem is that I can't follow this rhythm."

    2) From Thomas McKlean (1994, p. 50)-
    "What can I do better to fit in with mainstream society? I think I have found a possible solution. I have been lately very careful to observe society and interaction. There are many ways that people communicate and many things they do while they are together that simply make no sense to me. Sometimes I make a note of these things I see, and then I contact someone who knows me well enough to answer my questions about it in a way that I can understand.

    In her conclusion, Williams writes-
    In summary, I argue that we do not typically employ a theory in order to make sens of and relate to other people. Conversely, the evidence presented in this chapter from writers with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome suggest that they do resort to an intellectual theory-driven approach in their efforts to make some sense of what are to them confusing and unpredictable social encounters. (p. 165)

    1. Splendid! Note also this: that RETROSPECTIVELY, we can easily account backwards for whatever social interaction (or for that matter, in ref to your previous post, almost any action or behavior whatsoever) in ToM-drviven, very intentional way. (Why did I tell Eric's avatar that I was fine? Because I thought he intended to greet me and thus behaved in that way, and I satisfied his wish to greet me 'properly' by responding 'properly'. Why did I just spill that coffee all over the table? Because I wished to take a sip but because I was too busy writing this reply, I did not attend to that cup properly - naturally, when I reached for the coffee, I did not seem to 'will' or 'want' or 'think' anything coffee-related whatsoever, I just grabbed the unfortunate cup!) This whole accounting behavior was nicely elaborated on by Hal Garfinkel, and I am curious where Sharrock & Coulter take that in Leudar & Costall.
      Disclaimer: no coffee was spilled while this post was being written.

  4. ToM is such a terrible field of research. It's the classic 'take an overt behaviour, bundle the control of what you see into a dedicated module, place module in brain' move. Then people pick it up for things like autism and claim that when you remove this single module (which you can because it's an encapsulated object) you get autism.

    A colleague of mine builds a reductio for ToM bollock using developmental coordination disorder; you observe these kids and note they can't tie their shoelaces. They have all kinds of difficulty interacting with shoes the way you and I do. So you propose that we typically have a 'theory of shoes' and kids with DCD don't have this theory, which explains their behaviour. DCD solved! (He used to set this as an exam question, to the consternation of the ToM people in the department :)

    That said; a while back I got intrigued by Heft's account of the problem of two minds. James worried about the overlap, but this gets solved by Gibson by making information for objects the relation and thus the same object can be seen by two people. I actually always thought that maybe, in a very real sense, the is perceptual overlap of 'minds' which might be an ecological basis for theory of mind type behaviours. I've never thought it all the way through, though.

    1. Andrew,

      The shoe example is great! In graduate school, ToM wasn't really on my radar, but modularity was all the rage. I tried to argue for funding a research center to study the innate 'bathroom finding' module. Most people find bathrooms very effectively in most buildings, with little explicit training, despite high variability in building design, and with little conscious awareness of their search strategies. This suggested... by the standard logic... the existence of an innate, evolved module, probably instantiated in a specialized brain area, and dedicated specifically to bathroom finding. No one thought NSF would be interested, but they continued to think that their pet modules were great. :- (

      As for the two minds problem, it is definitely important.... at least in so much as it is important to understand how dualism inevitably leads to the problem. The New Realists were very concerned with this problem, and Perry (James disciple and biographer, Holt colleague, and New Realist) wrote a few nice paper about it between 1900 and 1910. I should try to make a post about that.

      My papers in Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science about merging social and ecological psychology could possibly be simplified to: "1) What Gibson does with the two-minds problem regarding objects... that same thing with minds. 2) Oh, and that's part of Holt's agenda too. 3) Done." Right or wrong, it is line of reasoning well worth working through.

  5. Just saw this on Twitter:


    Boucher (2012) Putting theory of mind in its place: psychological explanations of the socio-emotional-communicative impairments in autistic spectrum disorder.

    1. You should really get on Twitter; it's surprisingly useful

    2. Good lord man, I have a blog I am neglecting and I check FaceBook almost once a week.... What on earth would I do with Twitter?