Wednesday, June 7, 2023, 10:00 am – 2:00 pm
You are cordially invited to the Defense of PhD thesis
The representational flexibility of spontaneous theory of mind in human adults
Dora Anna Fogd
Primary supervisor: Ágnes Melinda Kovács
Secondary supervisor: Natalie Sebanz and Ernő Téglás
Thesis submitted to:
Central European University, Department of Cognitive Science
Successful social interactions require correct interpretations and predictions of others’ actions. It has been widely accepted that to be able to do so people rely on their capacity to represent other agents’ mental states and take into account that those may differ from their own, referred to as theory of mind (ToM) in the literature. Research from the last fifteen years indicates that adults as well as infants may represent the content of others’ false beliefs and visual perspective spontaneously, however little is known about how other type of ToM computations take place in adults. Here we ask whether, contrary to some theoretical proposals, ToM can be flexible and efficient at the same time, in a sense that it can track various contents and allow for the complex manipulation of attributed beliefs, spontaneously.
The present thesis investigates three ToM processes that may play an important role in the smooth adaptation to others’ behaviour in a number of everyday social interactions, yet have been so far unexplored: 1) the updating of other agents’ mental states on the basis of the behaviour they demonstrate in a situation (Chapter 2), 2) the encoding of the hypotheses (alternatives) they entertain (Chapter 3 and 4) and 3) the representation of the conclusions they may draw from the beliefs they hold (Chapter 4). Specifically, in each study we asked whether these computations take place spontaneously, even when people are not required to perform those.
Using anticipatory looking and behavioural measures, in Study 1 we found evidence that adults spontaneously update a previously attributed mental state of another agent and revise their expectations regarding the agent’s future behaviour if they observe the agent repeatedly performing actions incompatible with their original assumptions about the beliefs she/he holds. Regarding our second research question, in Study 2 we did not find strong evidence for the spontaneous encoding of the alternatives another agent may represent in a situation with a change detection paradigm. However, we did find convincing evidence for the spontaneous representation of such contents in Study 3, in a series of online experiments using a different task, where participants had to estimate the likelihood of certain events, from first- and third-person perspective. Importantly, the results of Study 3 also suggest that human adults’ spontaneous ToM abilities go beyond monitoring what others saw, and consequently know, and extend to the representation of the conclusions other agents may deductively draw, from the beliefs they hold. In this set of studies we found that adults spontaneously tracked others’ logical inferences both about object identity and location, even if those involved multiple steps, if the cognitive demands of the task were relatively low.
Taken together these results imply that human adults are endowed with rich spontaneous ToM abilities that allow them to function both efficiently and flexibly in the social world. Nevertheless, there are large individual differences regarding whether they actually perform these computations spontaneously, which highlights the importance of investigating individual heterogeneity in the use of ToM abilities