Resisting nativism about mindreading

14 March 2016 | Marco Fenici

My flatmate, Sam, returns home from campus, and tells me he is thirsty. We always have beer in the fridge, and I know he likes it, but I have already drunk the last one. What will Sam do?

I predict that he will go to the kitchen looking for beer. At least, this is what I should do if I consider his reasonable (but incorrect) belief that there is beer in the fridge.

As philosophers often put it, such situations rely on mindreading—our capacity to attribute mental states such as beliefs, desires, and intentions to others. Indeed, this capacity is often deemed vital for the prediction and explanation of others’ behaviour in a wide variety of situations (Dennett, 1987; Fodor, 1987); a view that has influenced much empirical research. 

Extended investigation of children’s capacity to predict others’ actions using elicited-response false belief tasks (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985; Wimmer & Perner, 1983), which apparently require children to perform inferential reasoning of the above kind, was, until recently, widely taken to show that it is not until age four or more that children correctly understand others’ to have false beliefs (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001).

These findings led to a large debate between, so-called, simulation theorists and theory theorists, but this debate has proven largely orthogonal to the concerns of psychologists (see Apperly, 2008, 2009 for discussion). Thus, I will not discuss it further in the present treatment. Instead, I will focus on a further controversy raised by the above findings: namely, the question of how infants/children acquire the socio-cognitive abilities. 

According to the child-as-scientist view (Bartsch & Wellman, 1995; Carey & Spelke, 1996; Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1996), children acquire a Theory of Mind (ToM) by forming, testing and revising hypotheses about the relations between mental states and observed behaviour. In contrast, proponents of modularism about mindreading (Baron-Cohen, 1995) contend that children have an innately endowed ToM provided by a domain-specific cognitive module, which has developed as our species evolved (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992; Humphrey, 1976; Krebs & Dawkins, 1984).

In the last years, the nativist view has been gaining increasing consensus after the finding that infants look longer—indicating their surprise—when they see an actor acting against a (false) belief that it would be rational to attribute to her (see Baillargeon, Scott, & He, 2010 for a review). 

These results are taken to indicate that infants can attribute true and false beliefs to other agents, and expect them to act coherently with these attributed mental states. Because of the very young age of the infants assessed, it has been claimed that, since birth, they must possess a predisposition to identify others’ mental states thereby implying a nativism about mindreading.

I have always been concerned about this conclusion, which seems to me a capitulation to a best explanation argument. Indeed, infants’ selective response in a spontaneous-response task does not yet specify which properties of the agent infants are sensitive to. It is not clear at all that the infants are responding to mental properties of the agents they observe rather than to other observed features of the actor’s behaviour or of the scene (Fenici & Zawidzki, in press; Hutto, Herschbach, & Southgate, 2011; Rakoczy, 2012). Furthermore, embracing nativism about mindreading excludes the possibility that infants may learn to attribute mental states in their earliest year of life (see Mazzone, 2015).

Moreover, the nativist interpretation of infants’ looking behaviour in spontaneous-response false belief tasks manifests an “adultocentric” bias. Indeed, what seems to us a full-fledged ability to interpret others’ actions by attributing mental states may have an independent explanation when manifested in the looking behaviour of younger infants. 

But, as it so happens, there are various reasons to doubt that infants’ social cognitive capacities manifested in spontaneous-response false belief tasks are developmentally continuous with later belief attribution capacities such as those apparently manifested by four-year-olds when succeeding in elicited-response false belief tasks (see Fenici, 2013, sec. 4 for full discussion).

First, three-year-olds are sensitive to false beliefs in spontaneous- but not in elicited-response false belief tasks (Clements & Perner, 1994; Garnham & Ruffman, 2001) in contrast to autistic subjects, who succeed in elicited (Happé, 1995) but not spontaneous-response false belief tasks (Senju, 2012; Senju et al., 2010). These opposed patterns suggest that the two capacities can be decoupled.

Furthermore, the activation of the ToM module is supposed to be automatic. Looking at the empirical evidence, adults ability for perspective taking is automatic (Surtees, Butterfill, & Apperly, 2011) while the capacity to consider others’ beliefs is not (Apperly, Riggs, Simpson, Chiavarino, & Samson, 2006; Back & Apperly, 2010, but see Cohen & German, 2009 for discussion).

Finally, if infants’ ToM mechanism was mostly responsible for their later success in elicited-response false belief tasks, one would expect alleged mindreading abilities in infancy to be a strong predictor of four-year-olds’ belief attribution capacities. However, longitudinal studies found only isolated and task-specific predictive correlations from infants’ performance in a variety of spontaneous-response false belief tasks at 15–18 months to success by the same children in elicited-response false belief tasks at age four (Thoermer, Sodian, Vuori, Perst, & Kristen, 2012).

These considerations make it important to explore alternative non-nativist explanations of the same data. In Fenici (2014), I undertook this challenge and argued that infants can progressively refine their capacity to form an expectation about the next course of an observed action without attributing a mental state to the actor.

In detail, extended investigation has by now demonstrated that, from 5–6‑months on, infants can track the (motor) goals of others’ actions, such as grasping (Woodward, 1998, 2003). By one year, this capacity is quite sophisticated (Biro, Verschoor, & Coenen, 2011; Sommerville & Woodward, 2005; Woodward & Sommerville, 2000). 

These studies demonstrate that infants associate cognitive agents with the outcome of their actions, and rely on these associations to form expectations about the agent’s future behaviour. Although this is normally taken to be equivalent to the idea that infants attribute goals, these capacities may depend on neural processes of covert (motor) imitation (Iacoboni, 2003; Wilson & Knoblich, 2005; Wolpert, Doya, & Kawato, 2003), which become progressively attuned to more abstract features of the observed action due to associative learning (Cooper, Cook, Dickinson, & Heyes, 2013; Ruffman, Taumoepeau, & Perkins, 2012).

Computing the statistical regularities in observed patterns of action may lead infants to form expectations not only about others’ motor behaviour but also about their gaze. Indeed, infants find it more difficult to track target-directed gaze than target-directed motor behaviour because the former but not the latter lacks physical contact between the actor and the target. They can nevertheless begin forming associations between actors and the target of their gaze by noticing that cognitive agents regularly act upon the objects they gaze at. 

This hypothesis is coherent with empirical data attesting that the ability to follow others’ gaze significantly improves around the ninth month (Johnson, Ok, & Luo, 2007; Luo, 2010; Senju, Csibra, & Johnson, 2008), and that this capacity may merely depend on infants’ ability to detect contingent patterns of interaction with the gazing agent (Deligianni, Senju, Gergely, & Csibra, 2011).

The analysis above may also account for infants’ attested sensitivity to goal-directed behaviour and gazing. Significantly, it may also explain the cognitive capacities manifested in spontaneous-response false belief tasks. 

In fact, several studies found that, around 12–14 months, infants do not associate an agent with a possible target of action when a barrier is preventing her from seeing the target (Butler, Caron, & Brooks, 2000; Caron, Kiel, Dayton, & Butler, 2002; Sodian, Thoermer, & Metz, 2007). Statistical learning may well account for this novel capacity just as it apparently explains 9‑month-olds’ acquired sensitivity to gaze direction from their previous sensitivity to target-directed behaviour.

Indeed, once they have learnt to associate actors with the targeted objects of their gazing, infants can start noticing that agents do not behave similarly in the presence or in the absence of barriers in their line of gaze. Significantly, this sensitivity to the modifying role that barriers have on others’ future gazing and acting comes in place right before infants start manifesting sensitivity to false beliefs in spontaneous-response false belief tasks. This may well be because developing this sensitivity is the last developmental step that infants need to achieve to manifest looking-behaviour that is selective to others’ false beliefs in spontaneous-response false belief tasks.

In conclusion, despite the wide consensus that nativism about mindreading boasts among philosophers and developmental psychologists, the evidence actually opposes a continuity in the development of social cognition from infancy to early childhood. Therefore, the capacities manifested in spontaneous-response seem not to be the forerunners of our mature capacity to attribute mental states, and that they could have evolved in other ways (Fenici, in press, subm., 2012; Fenici & Carpendale, in prep.) 

Future research should explore the possibility that infants’ alleged mindreading capacities actually indicate some more basic tendency to form and update expectations about others’ future actions, a capacity which progressively develops over the course of time to reflect a growing appreciation of which objects others can and cannot gaze at (Fenici, 2014; Ruffman, 2014).


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