Friday, November 19, 2010

Theory of Mind and Perspective Taking

There's a wealth of new and very interesting articles in the November Issue of Developmental Psychology relating to theory of mind and perspective taking:
  • in their article "True or false: Do 5-year-olds understand belief?" William V. Fabricius and his colleagues argue that conventional theory of mind tests don't really show a capacity for false belief understanding but instead
    "young children may only appreciate that people will know certain things and remain ignorant of certain other things as a function of perceptual accessibility. The argument goes on to suggest that in instances in which an individual does not know something, young children make a logical leap and judge that this individual is bound to be mistaken and that he or she will choose an incorrect option when given a choice between correct and incorrect alternatives."
    This has been called perceptual access reasoning in which children follow two principles:
    "(a) seeing and other forms of perceptual access lead to knowing, and lacking perceptual access leads to not knowing and (b) knowing leads to acting correctly, and not knowing leads to acting incorrectly."
    In a standard false belief task the child can only choose between two options (e.g. the toy is either in the red or the blue box). This makes their responses ambiguous because it is not clear whether children pass this task because they understand that the other person will act on a false belief/mental representation or simpy because they reason that the person will make the wrong choice as he or she didn't have perceptual access to the situation.
    The experiments reported in this article indicate that children only really start reasoning about beliefs at age six. Favicus et al conclude that:
    "because most prior studies have failed to detect young children's use of perceptual access reasoning, they have overestimated their understanding of false beliefs."
  • In an article called "Forgetting common ground: Six- to seven-year-olds have an overinterpretive theory of mind." Kristin Hansen Lagattuta report a study in which
    Four- to 9-year-olds and adults (N = 256) viewed a series of pictures that were covered with occluders to reveal nondescript or identifiable parts. Participants predicted how 3 characters, 1 who had previously viewed the full picture and 2 who had not, would interpret the obstructed drawings. Results showed significant development between 4 and 9 years and between 9 years and adulthood in understanding thought diversity as well as situations in which people should think alike. There was also evidence for aU-shaped developmental curve, with 6- to 7-year-olds most often overextending the rule that people will think differently, particularly on the initial testing trials. Performance on the different interpretive theory-of-mind measures was differentially related to individual differences in inhibitory control and verbal working memory.
  • Monica Tsethlikai reports on "The Influence of a Friend's Perspective on American Indian Children's Recall of Previously Misconstrued Events":
    The ability of American Indian children (N = 99; 7–12 years of age) to reframe a memory of a friend's seemingly mean-spirited actions (Story 1) after hearing the friend's perspective detailing her/his good intentions (Story 2) was explored. Children in a control group heard an unrelated Story 2 and did not alter their retelling of Story 1. Good verbal skills facilitated the integration of the friend's perspective in memory for the children who heard the friend's explanation. Higher scores on the working memory and inhibition tasks were associated with higher verbal ability scores. Older children had better working memory and inhibitory skills than younger children. Cultural engagement predicted better social competence ratings but not higher memory reframing scores as predicted.
  • Finally, there's an interesting article by Christina M. Atance et al. on perspective taking and "Preschoolers' Understanding of Others' Desires: Fulfilling Mine Enhances My Understanding of Yours." Here's the abstract:
    We developed a gift-giving task requiring children to identify their mother's desire, when her desire differed from theirs. We found a developmental change: 3- and 4-year-olds performed more poorly than 5-year-olds (Experiment 1). A modified version of this task (Experiment 2) revealed that 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds whose desires had been fulfilled chose an appropriate gift for their mothers significantly more often than children whose desires were unfulfilled. Children who merely anticipated desire fulfillment also outperformed children whose desires were unfulfilled. Analysis of children's verbal explanations provides converging evidence that desire fulfillment enhanced children's tendency to adopt the perspective of their mother and justify their choices by referencing her desires. Discussion focuses on why desire fulfillment enhances children's ability to consider the desires of others.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Michael Tomasello - Why We Cooperate

cross-posted at Replicated Typo

In this post I will offer a short overview of some aspects of Michael

Tomasello’s latest book „Why We Cooperate,” which is based on his 2008 Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

Tomasello deals with the question howcooperative behaviour and itssocio-cognitive foundations arise both in development and during theevolution of the human species. His short text is accompanied by four short commentaries by leading scholars who contributed in important ways to the theory of the evolution and ontogenetic development Tomasello espouses here. These are: psychologist Carol S. Dweck, anthropologist Joan B. Silk, philosopher Brian Skyrms and developmental psychologist Elizabeth Spelke.

In this post I only want to briefly summarize some of the key tenets of Tomasello’s book to offer an introduction to his work on cooperation, whose main impetus it is to have a closer look at the relatively simple and primal cooperative and interactive social behaviour that builds the foundation of human culture.

The Uniqueness of Human Culture

Tomasello points out that a lot of social animals can be said to have a culture insofar as the same animal species can live in slighty different habitats and show different behaviours (e.g. chimpanzees of different regions have different pant-hoots, many species have regionally differing techniques for obtaining food).
In this regard, human culture is only quantitatively different from that of, say, the other great apes. The difference here is that humans simply have to learn about more culture-specific behaviours and artefacts. The principle however, is the same.
But according to Tomasello, there are two aspects that also make human culture also qualitatively different from all others:

  1. human culture is cumulative. That is, artefacts and behavioural practices often become more complex over time. Every improvement or accepted changed will be transferred to the next generation and so forth.
  2. human culture is unique in that there are social institutions, which create and enforce culture norms and practices.

What underlies these two features “are a set of species-unique skills and motivations for cooperation.” (Tomasello 2009: XIII) on which Tomasello elaborates in the subsequent chapters.

Early Spelke

In the first chapter, “Born (and Bred) to Help”, Tomasello outlines how children come to be (or already are) cooperative so that they can take part in an co-establish human culture.
He advances a theory he dubs “Early Spelke, Later Dweck.”Research done by Tomasello and many others shows that by the time they are about one year old, infants already prove to be cooperative and helpful in many contexts. In addition, these tendencies seem not be taught but come naturally to them given sufficient interaction with a normal environment. (Hence ‘Early Spelke, referring to the work done by Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke on innate or naturally emerging ‘core knowledge’).

Later Dweck
Later in development however, this picture becomes more complex: children come to be concerned about whether others will reciprocate and also about how they are judged by others in the group. They also gradually internalise cultural norms.
Up to now Tomasello has mostly described the initial starting point from which children refine their social behaviour and become truly cultural beings. More precisely, what happens is that children become less ‘indiscriminate’ in terms of who they behave altruistically towards, but become more discerning based on a variety of characteristics.

This phase could be described as the birth of the ‘public self’ which is concerned with ‘impression management.’ The child comes to realize that

“they are targets of the judgements of others who are using social norms as standards.” (Tomasello 2009: 31).

In other words, for the first time they develop a larger we- or group perspective, which is connected to the insight that this ‘we-ness’ is tied to certain social norms (‘They way we do things’).

Experiments show that by the age of three children actively follow social norms and also already participate in enforcing these norms.
If they grasp how a game works, for example, not only do the play it according to the rules, but they also correct others and object if they try to play the game differently.

Interestingly, they also use ‘normative declaratives’ like “One can’t do that” or “It doesn’t work like that,” when doing so.

Those findings contrast sharply with Jean Piaget’s influential view of how social norms are internalised. According to him, (and building on the work of Piaget, moral psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg), children follow social norms only because they fear punishment.

Instead, from and early age on children already seem to adopt some kind of ‘view from nowhere’ (Nagel 1970) and a “he is me” attitude of identification when interacting with others (see also Meltzoff 2005).

As Tomasello argues,

"without this added dimension of some kind of ‘we’ identity and rationality , it is impossible to explain take it upon themselves to actively enforce social norms on others from a third-party stance, especially those norms that are not based on cooperation but rather on constitutive rules that are, in an important sense, arbitrary" (Tomasello 2009: 39).

For Tomasello these processes form the basis of human cooperative behaviour, cultural transmission, social institutions and cultural practices.


Meltzoff, Andrew N. (2005): Imitation and other minds: The "Like Me" hypothesis. In S. Hurley and N. Chater (Eds.), erspectives on Imitation: From Neuroscience to Social Science. Vol. 2, pp. 55-77). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Nagel, Thomas (1970) The possibility of altruism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Unviersity Press.

Tomasello, Michael (2009): Why We Cooperate. Cambridge, MA/London, England: Boston Review.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cognitive Linguistics, Metaphor and Social Cognition

There's an interesting new article in the new issue of Psychological Bullettin arguing that our ability for metaphoric thinking (e.g. Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) plays a role in social cognition.
Here's the abstract (see here) :

"Social cognition is the scientific study of the cognitive events underlying social thought and attitudes. Currently, the field's prevailing theoretical perspectives are the traditional schema view and embodied cognition theories. Despite important differences, these perspectives share the seemingly uncontroversial notion that people interpret and evaluate a given social stimulus using knowledge about similar stimuli. However, research in cognitive linguistics (e.g., Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) suggests that people construe the world in large part through conceptual metaphors, which enable them to understand abstract concepts using knowledge of superficially dissimilar, typically more concrete concepts. Drawing on these perspectives, we propose that social cognition can and should be enriched by an explicit recognition that conceptual metaphor is a unique cognitive mechanism that shapes social thought and attitudes. To advance this metaphor-enriched perspective, we introduce the metaphoric transfer strategy as a means of empirically assessing whether metaphors influence social information processing in ways that are distinct from the operation of schemas alone. We then distinguish conceptual metaphor from embodied simulation—the mechanism posited by embodied cognition theories—and introduce the alternate source strategy as a means of empirically teasing apart these mechanisms. Throughout, we buttress our claims with empirical evidence of the influence of metaphors on a wide range of social psychological phenomena. We outline directions for future research on the strength and direction of metaphor use in social information processing. Finally, we mention specific benefits of a metaphor-enriched perspective for integrating and generating social cognitive research and for bridging social cognition with neighboring fields."
Landau, Mark J., Brian P. Meier and Lucas A. Keefer (2010): A Metaphor-Enriched Social Cognition. In: Psychological Bulletin 136 (6): 1045-1067.

Friday, November 5, 2010

What is the Relationship between Language, Analogy, and Cognition?

The capacity for analogy and "higher order, abstract, role-governed, relational reasoning” seems crucial to human cognition (Penn et al. 2008). According to psychologist Dedre Gentner, this capacity may explain "why we're so smart." (Gentner 2003).

In an interesting new article in the journal Language and Cognition Dedre Gentner and Stella Christie explore the relationship between relational/analogical reasoning and language (see here, subscription required). Here's the abstract:

What makes us so smart as a species, and what makes children such rapid learners? We argue that the answer to both questions lies in a mutual bootstrapping system comprised of (1) our exceptional capacity for relational cognition and (2) symbolic systems that augment this capacity. The ability to carry out structure-mapping processes of alignment and inference is inherent in human cognition. It is arguably the key inherent difference between humans and other great apes. But an equally important difference is that humans possess a symbolic language.The acquisition of language influences cognitive development in many ways. We focus here on the role of language in a mutually facilitating partnership with relational representation and reasoning. We suggest a positive feedback relation in which structural alignment processes support the acquisition of language, and in turn, language — especially relational language — supports structural alignment and reasoning.We review three kinds of evidence (a) evidence that analogical processes support children's learning in a variety of domains; (b) more specifically, evidence that analogical processing fosters the acquisition of language, especially relational language; and (c) in the other direction, evidence that acquiring language fosters children's ability to process analogies, focusing on spatial language and spatial analogies. We conclude with an analysis of the acquisition of cardinality — which we offer as a canonical case of how the combination of language and analogical processing fosters cognitive development.


Gentner, Dedre, & Stella Christie (2010). Mutual bootstrapping between language and analogical processing. Language and Cognition (2:2): 261–283.

Gentner, Dedre (2003). Why we’re so smart. In D. Gentner and S. Goldin-Meadow (Eds.), Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought (pp.195-235). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Penn, Derek C, Keith J. Holyoak. and Daniel J. Povinelli (2008): Darwin's mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences (31:2): 109-130.