ArticlePDF Available

Measuring spontaneous mentalizing with a ball detection task: putting the attention-check hypothesis by Phillips and colleagues (2015) to the test

Authors:

Abstract and Figures

Theory of Mind (ToM) or mentalizing refers to the ability to attribute mental states (such as desires, beliefs or intentions) to oneself or others. ToM has been argued to operate in an explicit and an implicit or a spontaneous way. In their influential paper, Kovács et al. (Science 330:1830–1834, 2010) introduced an adapted false belief task—a ball detection task—for the measurement of spontaneous ToM. Since then, several studies have successfully used versions of this paradigm to investigate spontaneous ToM. This paradigm has, however, been criticized by Phillips et al. (Psychol Sci 26(9):1353–1367, 2015), who argue that the effects are fully explained by timing artifacts in the paradigm, namely differences in timing of the attention check. The main objective of the current study is to test this attention-check hypothesis. An additional aim was to relate the findings to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptomatology in our neurotypical sample, as ASD has been linked to deficits in spontaneous mentalizing. We applied an adjusted version of the paradigm in which the timings for all conditions are equalized, ruling out any potential timing confounds. We found significant main effects of own and agent beliefs on reaction times. Additionally, we found a significant ‘ToM-effect’: When participants believe the ball is absent, they detect the ball faster if the agent believes the ball would be present rather than absent, which refers to the original effect in the paper of Kovács et al. (2010), taken as evidence for spontaneous ToM and which was contested by Phillips et al. (2015). Our findings cannot be explained by the attention-check hypothesis. Effects could not be associated with ASD symptoms in our neurotypical sample, warranting further investigation on the link between spontaneous mentalizing and ASD.
Content may be subject to copyright.
Measuring spontaneous mentalizing with a ball detection
task: Putting the attention-check hypothesis by Phillips
and colleagues (2015) to the test.
El Kaddouri, Rachida1 (ORCID: 0000-0002-2680-1784)
Bardi, Lara2,3 (ORCID: 0000-0002-1678-647X)
De Bremaeker, Diana1
Brass, Marcel2 (ORCID: 0000-0002-3364-4019)
& Wiersema, Jan R1 (ORCID: 0000-0001-5875-2051)
1 Ghent University, Department of Experimental Clinical and Health Psychology, Henri
Dunantlaan 2, 9000 Ghent, Belgium
2 Ghent University, Department of Experimental Psychology, Henri Dunantlaan 2, 9000 Ghent,
Belgium
3 Institute of Cognitive Sciences Marc Jeannerod, UMR 5229, CNRS & University of Lyon,
France
Correspondence
Rachida El Kaddouri (Rachida.ElKaddouri@UGent.be)
Department of Experimental Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University
Henri Dunantlaan 2, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium
Tel.: +32(0)9-264 94 15
Acknowledgement:
This work was supported by the Special Research Fund of Ghent University (project number
BOF.DOC.2015.0096.01).
2
Abstract
Theory of Mind (ToM) or mentalizing refers to the ability to attribute mental states (such as
desires, beliefs or intentions) to oneself or others. ToM has been argued to operate in an
explicit and an implicit or spontaneous way. In their influential paper Kovács, Téglás and
Endress (2010) introduced an adapted false belief task a ball detection task for the
measurement of spontaneous ToM. Since then, several studies have successfully used
versions of this paradigm to investigate spontaneous ToM. This paradigm has however been
criticized by Phillips and colleagues (2015), who argue that the effects are fully explained by
timing artifacts in the paradigm, namely differences in timing of the attention check. The main
objective of the current study is to test this attention-check hypothesis. An additional aim was
to relate the findings to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptomatology in our neurotypical
sample, as ASD has been linked to deficits in spontaneous mentalizing. We applied an
adjusted version of the paradigm in which the timings for all conditions are equalized, ruling
out any potential timing confounds. We found significant main effects of own and agent belief
on reaction times. Additionally, we found a significant ToM effect: when participants believe
the ball is absent, they detect the ball faster if the agent believes the ball would be present
rather than absent, which refers to the original effect in the paper of Kovács and colleagues
(2010), taken as evidence for spontaneous ToM and which was contested by Phillips and
colleagues (2015). Our findings cannot be explained by the attention-check hypothesis. Effects
could not be associated with ASD symptoms in our neurotypical sample, warranting further
investigation on the link between spontaneous mentalizing and ASD.
3
Introduction
Social interactions are driven by the ability to attribute mental states (beliefs, intentions,
desires, and feelings) to oneself and others, which is referred to as Theory of Mind (ToM) or
mentalizing (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). ToM has been argued to operate in either an explicit
or implicit/spontaneous mode. Explicit mentalizing refers to a cognitive process during which
a person is deliberately considering mental states of other’s (Schuwerk, Vuori, & Sodian, 2015;
Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001). Implicit or spontaneous mentalizing is delineated as a rapid,
inflexible, cognitive efficient process that operates without being consciously aware of it
(Clements & Perner, 1994; Kulke, von Duhn, Schneider, & Rakoczy, 2018; Nijhof, Brass, Bardi,
& Wiersema, 2016; Schneider, Slaughter, & Dux, 2017; Schuwerk et al., 2015). Past research
has mainly focused on explicit mentalizing as the notion of spontaneous mentalizing has only
arisen recently, but research on spontaneous mentalizing is rapidly expanding. Investigating
spontaneous mentalizing may not only provide a better understanding of development of ToM
(Low & Perner, 2012; Schneider, Slaughter, Becker, & Dux, 2014; Schneider et al., 2017) but
may also be of major relevance for studying ToM in psychopathology, such as autism spectrum
disorder (ASD; Senju, 2013b, 2013a). ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by
qualitative impairments in social interactions and communication in daily life, which has been
explained by a mentalizing deficit: people with ASD have difficulties understanding other
people’s mental states (Hill & Frith, 2003; Sabbagh, 2004; Schneider, Slaughter, Bayliss, &
Dux, 2013). However, findings from studies using explicit ToM tasks are not conclusive, as
children and adults with ASD often pass such tests. It has therefore been reasoned that
individuals with ASD do not mentalize spontaneously, but may succeed on ToM tasks in which
they are explicitly asked about the other’s mental state by means of learned cognitive
compensatory strategies (Frith, 2012). A deficit in spontaneous ToM may explain why
individuals with ASD keep showing severe mentalizing difficulties in daily social life, which is
complex and requires fast online implicit mentalizing abilities (Frith, 2012).
To measure spontaneous mentalizing, a variety of paradigms has been developed to allow
investigating mental state attribution without requiring participants to explicitly deliberate about
other people’s mental states (Apperly & Butterfill, 2009). Kovács, Téglás, and Endress (2010)
introduced an adapted false belief task, in which the participant and agent form a belief about
the presence of a ball, followed by an outcome phase in which the ball is either present or
absent. More specifically, participants get to see short movies in which an agent (in their
version: a Smurf) forms a belief about the location of a ball. The ball can either be behind an
occluder or roll out of the scene. The agent walks out of the scene and while he is away the
participant forms a belief about the ball’s location as well. At the end, the agent walks back in
and the participant has to press a button if he/she thinks the ball is present behind the occluder
4
(in the adaptation for infants no button press is required since eye-tracking is used). However,
whether or not the ball is behind the occluder (50% of the trials) is independent of what happens
during the movie. Kovács and her colleagues (2010) employed this paradigm in two different
samples. First, they ran experiments with neurotypical adults and predicted that they would
detect the ball faster when they believed the ball would be behind the occluder. More important
though, they hypothesized that although the belief of the agent is completely irrelevant to the
task, if participants would spontaneously track the belief of the agent, reaction times should be
affected by it. They observed that when participants do not expect the ball to be present (P-),
they detect the ball faster when the agent believes the ball is present (P-A+) rather than absent
(P-A-), which was taken as evidence for spontaneous mentalizing of the agent’s belief (Kovács
et al., 2010). The difference in reaction times between these two conditions was in later studies
referred to as the ‘ToM-index’ (e.g., Deschrijver, Bardi, Wiersema, & Brass, 2016). In a second
series of experiments, 7 month old infants were tested using a violation of expectation
paradigm. Instead of investigating reaction times, looking durations were measured. This was
indicated by how long the infants looked at the absence of the ball when the participant and/or
agent believed the ball would be behind the occluder. As in adults, infants as young as 7
months old, seem to spontaneously track the beliefs of the agent (Kovács et al., 2010).
Since then, this paradigm, with some adjustments, has been applied in several studies using
brain imaging and in psychopathological groups (e.g. Bardi, Desmet, Nijhof, Wiersema, &
Brass, 2017; Deschrijver, Bardi, Wiersema, & Brass, 2016; Nijhof, Bardi, Brass, & Wiersema,
2018; Nijhof et al., 2016; Nijhof, Brass, & Wiersema, 2017; Phillips et al., 2015). These studies
revealed three important insights.
Firstly, in all these studies the ToM-index was found, indicating that the ToM-index is a reliable
measure that can be replicated in different labs (Deschrijver, et al., 2016; Kovács, Kühn,
Gergely, Csibra, & Brass, 2014; Kovács et al., 2010; Nijhof, et al., 2017; Phillips et al., 2015).
Secondly, performance during the implicit version of the task elicits brain activation in core
ToM regions, such as the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ; Bardi et al., 2017; Kovács et al.,
2014; Nijhof et al., 2018). These results support the validity of the paradigm for measuring
mentalizing processes (Bardi et al., 2017; Nijhof et al., 2018). Finally, this paradigm has also
been employed in relation to ASD to investigate the hypothesis that spontaneous mentalizing
abilities are impaired in people with ASD (Deschrijver et al., 2016; Frith, 2012; Kulke et al.,
2018; Schneider et al., 2013). Deschrijver and colleagues (2016) predicted a smaller ToM-
index in adults with ASD. They found a significant ToM-index, but groups did not significantly
differ for this effect. However, within the ASD group there was a negative correlation between
the ToM-index and ASD symptomatology, suggesting less spontaneous mentalizing in adults
with ASD showing more ASD symptoms. Nijhof, Brass and Wiersema (2017) tested
5
neurotypical adults with higher and lower levels of ASD symptomatology based on scores on
the short Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). As expected, participants with a higher level of ASD
symptomatology, showed less spontaneous mentalizing as indicated by a smaller ToM-index
(Nijhof, et al., 2017). Finally, Nijhof and colleagues (2016) found no correlation between the
ToM-index and ASD symptomatology within a neurotypical sample (Nijhof et al., 2016). While
these studies provided some evidence for the idea that spontaneous mentalizing is impaired
in ASD, the results are not unequivocal and the relation between spontaneous ToM and ASD
symptomatology may be more subtle than assumed (Deschrijver et al., 2016; Nijhof et al.,
2016; Nijhof, et al., 2017).
While the paradigm has been proven to be a useful tool for studying spontaneous
mentalizing processes in these studies, the validity of the paradigm as used in adults has been
questioned by Phillips and colleagues (2015). The authors argue that the initial findings of
Kovács and colleagues, taken as evidence for spontaneous ToM are driven by inconsistencies
in the timing of an attention check the attention-check hypothesis. The crucial aspect in the
paradigm is that the beliefs formed by the agent are completely irrelevant for the task (detecting
the ball), but are hypothesized to influence the reaction times as the participant spontaneously
takes into account the belief of the agent. To ensure that participants pay attention to the video
and the agent, without providing a rational for the presence of the agent, participants are
instructed to press a button when the agent leaves the scene (the so called ‘attention check’).
Phillips and colleagues (2015) claim that the difference between conditions in the timing of the
attention check, is what explains the results (the so-called attention-check hypothesis).
According to the authors, this is due to the psychological refractory period (PRP): the shorter
the time between two judgements is, the slower one is on the second judgement (Phillips et
al., 2015).
The attention-check hypothesis has been contested by Nijhof and colleagues (2017).
They suggested several theoretical and statistical arguments why this explanation is unlikely.
Among others, they did not observe a cross-over effect in their data which would be expected
as argued by Phillips and colleagues (2015) based on the timing differences in attention check
between conditions. They further criticized the proposed underlying mechanism, the PRP, as
the PRP has been known to only have a short-term effect lasting up to several hundred
milliseconds, while the shortest interval between the attention check and ball detection was
more than 3 seconds, which exceeds the reach of a PRP effect (Nijhof et al., 2016). Finally,
they argued that a negative correlation between the ToM-index and ASD symptom severity in
adults with ASD, as found by Deschrijver and colleagues (2016), is difficult to reconcile with a
simple timing explanation. We would like to add to these arguments that neuroimaging findings
from studies applying this paradigm, showed activation in core mentalizing regions in the brain
6
(e.g., TPJ) also strongly suggest that mentalizing processes are at play and that these effects
cannot easily be explained by timing artefacts in the paradigm (Bardi et al., 2017; Nijhof et al.,
2018)
However, none of these arguments form a definitive proof against the attention-check
hypothesis. Philips and colleagues (2015) manipulated the attention check within the paradigm
in two different ways to validate their attention-check hypothesis. The results showed that (1)
if there is no attention check or (2) if the attention check is at the same time in every condition,
namely when the agent comes back into the scene (and not when he leaves the scene, which
is the moment the agent forms his belief), the results of Kovács and her colleagues (2010) are
not replicated. They therefore concluded that the findings in reaction time patterns are driven
by differences in timing of the attention check and not by the belief of an agent. However, their
approach is not ideal: it does result in equal timing of the attention check, however it also may
undermine the purpose of the attention check itself. The attention check is there to ensure that
the participant pays attention to the agent during a pivotal phase of the movie, namely when
the agent forms his belief. Omitting the attention check or postponing it to the final stage of the
movie may result in not paying attention to this pivotal phase of the movie. In order to address
this concern, we kept the attention check at the same moment as in the original paradigm
(when the agent leaves the scene) but ensured equal timing for the attention check between
all conditions. In addition, to completely eliminate any timing issue, we ensured equal timing
of all events in the paradigm. By equalizing all the timings (how long the agent is in the scene;
for how long the ball moves; the moment the agent leaves (thus the agent has formed a belief
and the participant has to press a button); the moment when the agent comes back in and
when the occluder falls), we rule out any explanation in terms of timing confounds. We
hypothesized that the reaction time pattern in neurotypical adults will be influenced by both
own and agent belief. In line with the original findings of Kovács and others (2010) we expected
to find a significant ToM-index. As an additional aim, we wanted to test whether ToM-index
scores are related to ASD symptomology as a dimensional trait in our neurotypical sample.
More specifically, we explored whether participants scoring higher on ASD symptomology
show smaller ToM-effects compared to participants with lower scores.
7
Method
Participants
Sixty participants (5 male; mean age = 18.82 years; SD = 1.41 years) took part in the
study. Three participants in total were excluded from further analysis due to an accuracy lower
than 90%. Data analysis was thus carried out on data of 57 participants (3 male, mean age =
18.82 years; SD = 1.44 years). All of the participants were students at Ghent University and
received course credits in return. Informed consent was obtained from all individual
participants included in the study. This study was approved by the local ethics committee of
the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of Ghent University.
Stimuli and Task
Implicit mentalizing task. The task was presented on a laptop (15.6 inch) using Presentation
Software, version 18.1 (Neurobehavioral Systems Inc., San Francisco, CA).
An adapted version of the implicit Theory of Mind task (Kovács et al., 2010) was used.
The agent in the original version was a Smurf, while the one used in the adapted version was
Buzz Lightyear (see also Bardi et al., 2017; Deschrijver et al., 2016; Nijhof et al., 2016). The
timing properties differ from the version used by Kovàcs and colleagues (2010; see further).
The storyline remained the same.
The participants watched short video animations of 720 x 480 pixels. Each video
consisted of a Belief Formation phase and an Outcome phase. During the movies the beliefs
of the agent (A) and the participant (P) about the presence of a ball were manipulated (‘+’ if
the ball was present behind the occluder, ‘-if the ball was absent). The movie always begins
with Buzz Lightyear entering the scene and placing a ball on the table in front of an occluder.
The ball then starts moving and rolls behind the occluder. From that moment on, four different
scenarios, depending on the experimental condition, were possible:
1. True belief Positive content condition (Participant+Agent+)
The ball rolls from behind the occluder halfway to the right and then back behind the
occluder. The agent walks out of the scene with the (implicit) belief that the ball is behind
the occluder (A+). In the absence of Buzz, the ball starts rolling halfway to the right and
then halts behind the occluder. Resulting in the participant holding the same belief as Buzz
(P+).
8
2. False belief Negative content condition (P+A-)
The ball rolls from behind the occluder halfway to the right and then out of the scene. The
agent walks out of the scene with the (implicit) belief that the ball is not behind the occluder
(A-). In the absence of Buzz, the ball rolls back into the scene and halts behind the
occluder. The result is that the participant now holds a different belief than Buzz (P+).
3. False belief Positive content condition (P-A+)
The ball rolls from behind the occluder halfway to the right and then back behind the
occluder. The agent walks out of the scene with the (implicit) belief that the ball is behind
the occluder (A+). In the absence of Buzz, the ball starts rolling halfway to the right and
then out of the scene. The result is that the participant now holds a different belief than
Buzz (P-).
4. True belief Negative content condition (P-A-)
The ball rolls from behind the occluder halfway to the right and then out of the scene. The
agent walks out of the scene with the (implicit) belief that the ball is not behind the occluder
(A-). In the absence of Buzz, the ball rolls back into the scene and then again out of the
scene. Resulting in the participant holding the same belief as Buzz (P-).
In the Outcome phase Buzz walks back into the scene and the occluder falls. This
reveals whether the ball is or isn’t present behind the occluder. The ball was present in half of
the trials. The presence of the ball was completely random and independent of the belief
formation phase. Participants were asked to press a key (‘V’ on the keyboard) when the agent
left the scene and to press a key when the occluder fell and a ball was present (‘B’ on the
keyboard). As a result of combining the Belief Formation and Outcome phase, there were eight
different movies/conditions that were each shown ten times. Therefore the entire experiment
consisted out of 80 trials, presented in a randomized order in two blocks of 40 trials with a short
break in between. A blank screen was shown for 2000 ms before every new trial (intertrial
interval; ITI). Prior to the start of the experiment, four practice trials were presented to the
participants. They received feedback on their response after each of the respective practice
trials.
Whereas in the original task (Kovacs et al., 2010) the timing differs across conditions
(specifically the moment when the agent left the scene), in our adjusted version, equal timing
of events during the task was assured (see Figure 1.).
Every trial consists out of different movie clips and frames that are presented after each
other as one movie that lasts 12,868 ms using Presentation Software, version 18.1
(Neurobehavioral Systems Inc., San Francisco, CA).
9
Fig 1 Design of the paradigm: the timing is consistent across all conditions. The durations of every movie clip and
frame are shown in the first row, the second row shows the cumulative durations throughout the trial. Each frame
is presented 1000 ms to make it possible to time lock certain events (i.e. belief formation Buzz, belief formation
participant, possible conflict between the two beliefs, outcome). The instructions that were given to the participants
are indicated in green. Total duration of one trial is 12,868 ms and there was a fixed intertrial interval of 2000 ms.
Questionnaires
Two questionnaires were administered to measure ASD symptomatology: the Autism
Spectrum Quotient (AQ; (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Skinner, Martin, & Clubley, 2001;
Hoekstra, Bartels, Cath, & Boomsma, 2008) and the Social Responsiveness Scale Adult
Version (SRS-A; Constantino & Gruber, 2005).
The Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). The AQ is a self-report screening questionnaire with
50 items assessing autistic traits in adults. It results in a score on five subscales with 10 items
each: social skills, attention switching, attention to detail, communication and imagination.
Each item can be scored on a scale from 1 to 4, later this score was converted to a
dichotomous outcome (0 or 1).
The Social Responsiveness Scale Adult Version (SRS-A). The SRS-A is a self-report
questionnaire for adults between 18 and 65 years old that measures behavioral dimensions
that are characteristic to ASD. It consists of 64 items that can be scored on a scale from 1 to
4 and results in four subscales: social awareness, social communication, social motivation en
rigidity/repetitiveness.
10
Procedure
The study consisted out of two experimental tasks (here we focus on the Buzz Lightyear
task, the other task will be discussed elsewhere) and three pen-and-paper questionnaires (two
of which are described above). After participants signed the informed consent, they were asked
to fill out the SRS-A (Constantino & Gruber, 2005). Subsequently, one of the experimental
tasks was presented and after completion they filled out a Dutch debriefing form with five
questions based on the one used by Schneider and colleagues (2013). This was followed by
the AQ (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001), another experimental task was introduced, also followed
by a debriefing form and finally the last questionnaire namely the Toronto Alexithymia Scale
(TAS-20; Bagby, Parker, & Taylor, 1994) was administered. The order of the experimental
tasks was counterbalanced and there were no order effects. The entire session took
approximately one hour. At the end of the session, participants were awarded a course credit
and to encourage motivation a monetary bonus was given to the top 5 students with the best
accuracies and reaction times on both experimental tasks.
Statistical analysis
Reaction times for detection of the ball were recorded at the end of each trial in which
the ball was present behind the occluder. Outlier analysis was carried out. All responses more
than 3 standard deviations above or below the participants overall mean, or less than 100 ms
were removed from analyses. This resulted in a loss of 46 data points (2.05%) across all 57
participants. Control analyses revealed that removing the outliers did significantly change any
of the findings.
To investigate the effect of own belief and agent’s belief on reaction times, a 2-by-2
repeated measures ANOVA was carried out with own belief (P+, P-) and agent belief (A+, A-)
as within-subject factors. We controlled for multiple comparisons by means of a Bonferonni
correction. In case of violation of the assumption of sphericity Greenhouse-Geisser or Huynh-
Feldt correction was applied. Additionally, we performed a planned comparison for the
difference between P-A- and P-A+, referred to as the ToM-index, which was taken as evidence
for spontaneous ToM in the original paper of Kovàcs and colleagues (2010) and was later
criticized by Philips and colleagues (2015). Finally, Pearson correlations were performed to
explore the link between the ToM-index and ASD symptomatology as measured with the AQ
and the SRS-A. If there were missing data for the SRS-A, the median of that scale was used
as the score on that item (Constantino & Gruber, 2005). Missing items on the AQ were
estimated using the expectation maximization technique. In the correlational analyses, we
used scaled scores for the ToM-index ((RT P-A-) (RT P-A+) / (RT P-A-) + (RT P-A+)), to
11
control for potential confounding effects of differences in overall RT. All statistical analyses
were carried out with IBM SPSS statistics (SPSS Inc., Chicago, IL, USA).
Results
Behavioral Results
Accuracy. Participants were asked to press a key (‘B’) when the ball was present
behind the occluder in the outcome phase. Only a few omission errors were made (1.27% of
trials), hence these were not further analyzed. In 8.37% of the trials they pressed the key when
the ball was not present behind the occluder (i.e. ‘false alarms’). There is no effect of condition
on the number of false alarms (F (3,168) = 1.63, p = 0.19, 𝜼𝒑
² = 0.03; sphericity assumed).
Reaction time. The mean reaction time to the ball was 351 ms (SD = 8.85 ms; 95% CI
= [333.34, 368.81]). Figure 2 displays the mean reaction time for each condition.
Fig 2 Mean reaction times (ms) per condition.
To investigate the effect of own belief and agent’s belief on reaction times, a 2x2
repeated measures ANOVA was performed. A significant main effect of own belief (F(1,56) =
59.09, p < 0.001, 𝜂𝑝
² = 0.51) and agent belief (F(1,56) = 6.50, p = 0.01, 𝜂𝑝
² = 0.10) was found.
There was no significant interaction effect of own belief x agent belief (F(1,56) = 0.62, p = 0.44,
𝜂𝑝
² = 0.01). Taking a closer look at the main effect of own belief, we observed that participants
respond 29.59 ms faster (SD = 3.85, 95% CI = [-37.29, -21,87], p < 0.001) to the presence of
the ball in the conditions were the participants hold the belief that the ball would be present
(P+ conditions) compared to the conditions were the participants belief the ball would be
absent (P- conditions). The main effect of agent belief indicates that the belief of the agent
about the presence or absence of the ball, also influences how fast the participant detects the
ball. Participants are 9.14 ms faster (SD = 3.58, 95% CI [-16.32, -1.96], p = 0.01) in the
conditions were the agent holds the belief that the ball would be present (A+ conditions)
compared to the conditions were the agent had the opposite belief (A- conditions).
12
The planned comparison between P-A- and P-A+ (the ToM-index) shows that
participants were significantly slower in the P-A- condition compared to the P-A+ condition (p
= 0.03; 95% CI = [1.38, 22.80]). As this was a planned comparison based on the findings of
others (Deschrijver et al., 2016; Kovàcs et al., 2010; Nijhof et al., 2016), no Bonferroni
correction was applied. Table 1 shows all comparison between conditions, with Bonferroni
correction for the other comparisons (p-value of 0.0083 (0.05/6)). All conditions differ
significantly, even after Bonferroni correction, from each other with the exception of P+A+ and
P+A-.
Table 1. Overview of the statistical comparisons between the four conditions
Condition 1
Condition 2
Mean Diff. (1-2)
Std. Error
p-value
P-A-
P-A+
12.09
5.35
0.028*
P+A-
32.53
6.27
<0.001*
P+A+
38.72
4.75
<0.001*
P-A+
P+A-
20.45
5.72
0.001*
P+A+
26.64
4.31
<0.001*
P+A-
P+A+
6.19
5.04
0.224
Note. P = Participant, A = Agent, + = belief ball is present, - = belief ball is absent. The colored
row indicates the planned comparison (P-A- vs. P-A+). *Indicates a significant effect.
Questionnaires
All 57 participants filled out both questionnaires. For the SRS-A the scores ranged
between 16 and 109 with a mean score of 41.39 (SD = 16.23). There was 0.003% missing
data (10 of 3420 items). The scores on the AQ varied between 8 and 31 with a mean score of
15.14 (SD = 5.43). There was 0.003% missing data (9 of 2850 items). As expected these two
questionnaires are strongly correlated (r = 0.67, p < 0.001). However, neither the SRS-A nor
the AQ correlated significantly with the ToM-index (r = -0.08, p = 0.54 for the SRS-A and r = -
0.03, p = 0.84 for the AQ).
Discussion
Kovács and colleagues (2010) developed a ball detection paradigm to measure
spontaneous mentalizing. They observed that when participants do not expect the ball to be
present (P-), they detect the ball faster when the agent believes the ball is present (A+) rather
than absent (A-), which they took as evidence for spontaneous mentalizing (Kovács et al.,
2010). After that several studies applied this paradigm and were able to replicate this finding
(Bardi et al., 2017; Deschrijver et al., 2016; Nijhof, et al., 2017). However, Phillips and
13
colleagues (2015) argued that the observed effects are possibly not the result of mentalizing
abilities but rather are the outcome of timing artifacts within the paradigm, more precisely
differences in timing between conditions for the attention check, referred to as the attention-
check hypothesis. The objective of the current study was to investigate if the ToM-effect would
still be present when all timings would be equalized, and thus eliminating any potential timing
artifact. The ToM-index was observed, hence this effect cannot be explained by a timing
confound.
We found that the participants reactions were influenced by both their own and the
agent’s belief as reflected in significant main effects of own belief and agent belief on reaction
times. This shows that the participant’s reaction times are not only affected by their own belief,
but also by the belief that is attributed to an agent. As the original work of Kovács and
colleagues (2010), we focused on the difference between P-A+ and P-A- conditions, which
referred to as the ToM-index, and was later contested by Phillips and colleagues (2015). We
performed a planned comparison for this effect. In line with previous work, we found a
significant ToM-index: participants were significantly faster in the condition where the agent
believes the ball will be present (P-A+), compared to the condition where the agent believes
the ball is absent while the participant believes the ball would be absent (P-A). This implies
that even if they believe the ball will be absent, they spontaneously take the belief of the agent
into account, enabling them to respond faster to the presence of the ball. These findings
indicate that the attention-check hypothesis of Phillips and his colleagues (2015) do not explain
the results that are found with this paradigm. They argued that the effects were due to a shorter
delay between the attention check key press and the ball detection response in the P+A+ and
P-A- conditions (Phillips, et al., 2015). Differences in reaction time are then the result of the
psychological refractory period. However, the current study refutes this as all possible timing
artifacts are removed from the paradigm, thus the found effects cannot be explained by the
attention-check hypothesis.
Interestingly, we did not only observe a significant ToM-index, also a main effect of
agent belief was found. This effect was hypothesized but not observed in the original study of
Kovács and colleagues (2010). Indicating that our findings provide even stronger support for
spontaneous mentalizing, compared to only the ToM-index. Most studies focused specifically
on the ToM-index, however a main effect of the other agent’s belief has been reported in
another study using the paradigm with ‘confounded’ timing (Nijhof et al., 2017) as well, hence
we can only speculate about the reasons for our finding. It may be that the effect of the agent’s
belief on ball detection is (somewhat) stronger when oneself does not have a representation
of the ball (P-A- vs P-A+) than when there already exists a representation of the ball (P+A- vs
14
P+A+), which may explain the inconsistency across studies. Future well-powered studies are
needed to further address this issue.
Phillips and his colleagues (2015) highlighted that we need to get a better
understanding of (spontaneous) mentalizing processes, but that this requires valid paradigms
to test these aspects of social cognition. The current study demonstrates that the effects found
with the paradigm of Kovács and colleagues (2010) are not solely due to timing confounds.
Several studies (e.g. Bardi et al., 2017; Deschrijver et al., 2016; Nijhof et al., 2016, 2017)
successfully employed this paradigm and contested the attention-check hypothesis with
theoretical and statistical arguments. Nevertheless, to completely rule out the attention-check
hypothesis the timing difference between conditions needs to be eliminated. Phillips and
colleagues (2015) made an attempt by putting the attention check at the moment when the
agent comes back in the scene (same in every condition) and by removing the attention check.
Nevertheless, these approaches ignore the true purpose of the attention check, namely making
sure that participants pay attention to the agent at the crucial moment when he forms a belief
about the location of the ball, without the participant being aware of this purpose.
As of yet no study had assured fully equal timing between events in this paradigm (while
also taking the purpose of the attention check into account), which is needed to fully rule out
any potential timing confounds. The current study provides empirical evidence because here
we show that the ToM-index cannot be explained in terms of differences in timing of events or
refractory period. This conclusion is in accordance with recent fMRI findings indicating that
core ToM regions, such as the TPJ and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), are activated
when using the spontaneous ToM task (Bardi et al., 2017; Nijhof et al., 2018). This strengthens
the conclusion that findings cannot solely be attributed to confounds but do reflect spontaneous
mentalizing processes.
To assure that belief attribution was spontaneous and not explicit, participants were
asked to fill out a debriefing form (see also, Schneider et al., 2013). This debriefing procedure
revealed that participants were not consciously tracking the belief of the agent. Participants
were also asked if they were paying attention to the movements of the ball. This is important
to take into account because if the participants do not pay attention to the movements of the
ball, and thus are not tracking its location, they cannot attribute a belief about its location to
another person. Nine of the participants reported that they only focused on the outcome (the
falling of the green occluder) and that they did not track the movements of the ball. Excluding
these nine participants did not change the effects. Exploratory analyses on this very small
sample suggest that when there is no attention to the ball, the reaction times only differ
between the P+ and P- conditions, and that no agent effect, nor the ToM-index is observed.
15
Our sample is too small to draw any strong conclusions, but this notion may be of importance
for future studies. Two things can be considered. First, it indicates the importance of the
attention check. Second, future research should be aware of this issue and include a debriefing
to control if participants actually paid attention to the object (here a ball). This may be important
to assure that results and group differences in future studies may not be due to differences in
paying attention to the ball.
As an additional aim of our study, we investigated the relation between ASD
symptomatology as a dimensional trait in a neurotypical population and spontaneous ToM, but
no correlation was found. This finding is in line with a recent study by Nijhof and colleagues
(2016) and can be due to restricted variance in ASD symptomatology in our neurotypical
sample. In a study with neurotypical adults with higher or lower levels on ASD symptomatology
(a priori selected based on scores on the short AQ) a group difference was found:
Neurotypicals with lower levels of ASD symptomatology show a significant ToM-index, while
this was absent in the group with higher levels of ASD symptoms (Nijhof et al., 2017).
Deschrijver and colleagues (2015) also found a correlation between ASD symptomatology and
spontaneous ToM (the ToM-index), however only in their ASD sample. Hence, overall findings
do suggest a negative association between ASD symptoms and spontaneous mentalizing,
especially when ASD symptoms are more severe but more research is definitely warranted,
as findings are not conclusive.
In summary, Phillips and colleagues (2015) argued that the found effects with the
paradigm developed by Kovács and her colleagues (2010) were due to timing artifacts caused
by the psychological refractory period and that therefore the paradigm is not suited to measure
spontaneous mentalizing. Here, we showed that when keeping the purpose of the attention
check intact and equalizing the timings of all events across conditions, we found significant
effects of the agent’s belief on ball detection speed and could replicate the initial finding of
Kovács et and colleagues (2010); we observed a significant ToM-index. Our results refute the
attention-check hypothesis and suggest that we spontaneously track other agents’ beliefs
within this paradigm. No association with ASD symptoms in our neurotypical sample was
found, warranting further research.
16
Compliance with ethical standards
Funding: This work was funded by the Special Research Fund of Ghent University (project
number BOF.DOC. 2015.0096.01).
Conflict of interest: The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
Ethical approval: All procedures performed in this study involving human participants were in
accordance with the ethical standards of “The Ethical Committee of the Faculty of Psychology
and Educational Sciences of Ghent University” and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its
later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This article does not contain any studies
with animals performed by any of the authors.
Informed consent: Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in
the study.
17
References
Apperly, I. a, & Butterfill, S. a. (2009). Do humans have two systems to track beliefs and
belief-like states? Psychological Review, 116(4), 953970.
https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016923
Bagby, R. M., Parker, J. D. A., & Taylor, G. J. (1994). The twenty-item Toronto Alexithymia
Scale. Item selection and cross-validation of the factor structure. Journal of
Psychosomatic Research, 38, 2332.
Bardi, L., Desmet, C., Nijhof, A., Wiersema, J. R., & Brass, M. (2017). Brain activation for
spontaneous and explicit mentalizing in adults with autism spectr. Social Cognitive and
Affective Neuroscience, 12(3), 391400. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsw143
Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The Autism
Spectrum Quotient : Evidence from Asperger syndrome/high functioning autism, males
and females, scientists and mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental
Disorders, 31(1), 517. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005653411471
Clements, W. A., & Perner, J. (1994). Implicit understanding of belief. Cognitive
Development, 9(4), 377395. https://doi.org/10.1016/0885-2014(94)90012-4
Constantino, J. N., & Gruber, C. P. (2005). Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS). Los
Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.
Deschrijver, E., Bardi, L., Wiersema, J. R., & Brass, M. (2016). Behavioral measures of
implicit theory of mind in adults with high functioning autism. Cognitive Neuroscience,
7(14). https://doi.org/10.1080/17588928.2015.1085375
Frith, U. (2012). Why we need cognitive explanations of autism. Quarterly Journal of
Experimental Psychology, 65(11), 20732092.
https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2012.697178
Hill, E. L., & Frith, U. (2003). Understanding autism: insights from mind and brain.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 358(1430),
281289. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2002.1209
Hoekstra, R. A., Bartels, M., Cath, D. C., & Boomsma, D. I. (2008). Factor structure, reliability
and criterion validity of the autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): A study in Dutch population
and patient groups. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(8), 15551566.
18
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-008-0538-x
Kovács, Á. M., Kühn, S., Gergely, G., Csibra, G., & Brass, M. (2014). Are all beliefs equal?
Implicit belief attributions recruiting core brain regions of theory of mind. PLoS ONE,
9(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0106558
Kovács, A. M., Téglás, E., & Endress, A. D. (2010). The Social Sense: Susceptability to
Others’ Beliefs in Human Infants and Adults. Science, 330(2010), 18301834.
https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1190792
Kulke, L., von Duhn, B., Schneider, D., & Rakoczy, H. (2018). Is Implicit Theory of Mind a
Real and Robust Phenomenon? Results From a Systematic Replication Study.
Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617747090
Low, J., & Perner, J. (2012). Implicit and explicit theory of mind: State of the art. British
Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30, 113. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-
835X.2011.02074.x
Nijhof, A. D., Bardi, L., Brass, M., & Wiersema, J. R. (2018). Brain activity for spontaneous
and explicit mentalizing in adults with autism spectrum disorder: An fMRI study.
NeuroImage: Clinical, 18(February), 475484. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2018.02.016
Nijhof, A. D., Brass, M., Bardi, L., & Wiersema, J. R. (2016). Measuring mentalizing ability: A
within-subject comparison between an explicit and implicit version of a ball detection
task. PLoS ONE, 11(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0164373
Nijhof, A. D., Brass, M., & Wiersema, J. R. (2017). Spontaneous mentalizing in neurotypicals
scoring high versus low on symptomatology of autism spectrum disorder. Psychiatry
Research, 258, 1520. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2017.09.060
Phillips, J., Ong, D. C., Surtees, A. D. R., Xin, Y., Williams, S., Saxe, R., & Frank, M. C.
(2015). A Second Look at Automatic Theory of Mind: Reconsidering Kovács, Téglás,
and Endress (2010). Psychological Science, 26(9), 13531367.
https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614558717
Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? The
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4, 515526.
Sabbagh, M. A. (2004). Understanding orbitofrontal contributions to theory-of-mind
reasoning: Implications for autism. Brain and Cognition, 55(1), 209219.
19
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2003.04.002
Schneider, D., Slaughter, V. P., Bayliss, A. P., & Dux, P. E. (2013). A temporally sustained
implicit theory of mind deficit in autism spectrum disorders. Cognition, 129(2), 410417.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2013.08.004
Schneider, D., Slaughter, V. P., Becker, S. I., & Dux, P. E. (2014). Implicit false-belief
processing in the human brain. NeuroImage, 101, 268275.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.07.014
Schneider, D., Slaughter, V. P., & Dux, P. E. (2017). Current evidence for automatic Theory
of Mind processing in adults. Cognition, 162, 2731.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2017.01.018
Schuwerk, T., Vuori, M., & Sodian, B. (2015). Implicit and explicit Theory of Mind reasoning
in autism spectrum disorders: The impact of experience. Autism, 19(4), 459468.
https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361314526004
Senju, A. (2013a). Atypical development of spontaneous social cognition in autism spectrum
disorders. Brain and Development, 35(2), 96101.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.braindev.2012.08.002
Senju, A. (2013b). Spontaneous theory of mind and its absence in autism spectrum
disorders. Brain and Development, 35(2), 96101.
https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858410397208
Wellman, H. M., Cross, D., & Watson, J. (2001). Meta-Analysis of Theory-of-Mind
Development: The Truth about False Belief. Child Development, 72(3), 655684.
https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00304
... Altercentricism is the biasing effect that another's point of view has on one's own egocentric cognition and behavior (Kampis & Southgate, 2020). A recent series of ToM studies with adults and infants supports this prediction (Bardi et al., 2017;Deschrijver et al., 2016;Kaddouri et al., 2020;Kovács et al., 2010;Kovács et al., 2014;Nijhof et al., 2017). These studies show that while implicitly tracking the beliefs of another agent, subjects behave (in terms of their reaction time) as if they actually shared the belief of the other agent. ...
... Simulation has been suggested as a plausible explanation for some of these altercentric effects involved in perspective-taking (Frischen et al., 2009;Ward et al., 2020;Ward et al., 2019). Particularly relevant here, however, are recent findings from change-oflocation false-belief studies showing that the false beliefs of others appear to influence subjects to behave as if they shared those false beliefs (Bardi et al., 2017;Deschrijver et al., 2016;Kaddouri et al., 2020;Kovács et al., 2010;Kovács et al., 2014;Nijhof et al., 2017). The results of our current study provide suggestive evidence that chimpanzees also show such altercentric effects in a change-of-location false belief task. ...
Article
Full-text available
Recent studies have shown that great apes predict that other agents will search for objects of interest where the agents believe the objects are hidden. Little is understood about the cognitive process that apes undergo to make such predictions. According to prevailing models, great apes make such predictions by metarepresenting others’ beliefs or perceptual states. We investigated the simpler simulation model. In this model, apes predict where other agents will search for objects of interest by simulating believing what another agent believes about the location of the object. The simulation model predicts that simulating what another believes should manifest in altercentric biasing effects, such as behaving as if one shares another’s belief in cases where the other’s belief is false. We tested this by giving chimpanzees a novel search paradigm embedded in a change-of-location false-belief test and measured where they searched for a grape that they witnessed moved from its original location to a new location. In true-belief trials, chimpanzees were presented with an agent who knew (as they did) that the grape was hidden in the new location; in false-belief trials, the agent falsely believed the grape was still hidden in the original location while the chimpanzee knew it was hidden in the new location. As predicted by the simulation model, chimpanzees searched for the grape closer to its original location than to its new location in significantly more false-belief trials than true-belief trials. Results suggest that chimpanzees show a signature altercentric biasing effect of simulating believing what others believe and may use simulation, rather than metarepresentation, to predict where others will search for objects of interest.
... Based on their paradigm, the gaze times of 7-month-old infants have been shown to be influenced by their expectations, in the same way as for adults (Kovács et al., 2010). Although this paradigm was later contested by some (Phillips et al., 2015), more recent research has obtained results like Kovács et al. and found that one's own and the other's beliefs have a significant effect on reaction time (van der Wel et al., 2014;Nijhof et al., 2016;El Kaddouri et al., 2020). Interactive behavioral tasks (Buttelmann et al., 2009;Southgate et al., 2010); violation of expectation (Onishi and Baillargeon, 2005) is also frequently used paradigms in implicit mentalizing research. ...
Article
Full-text available
Introduction: Mentalizing is a key aspect of social cognition. Several researchers assume that mentalization has two systems, an explicit one (conscious, relatively slow, flexible, verbal, inferential) and an implicit one (unconscious, automatic, fast, non-verbal, intuitive). In schizophrenia, several studies have confirmed the deficit of explicit mentalizing, but little data are available on non-explicit mentalizing. However, increasing research activity can be detected recently in implicit mentalizing. The aim of this systematic review and meta-analysis is to summarize the existing results of implicit mentalizing in schizophrenia. Methods: A systematic search was performed in four major databases: MEDLINE, EMBASE, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), Web of Science. Eleven publications were selected. Five studies were found to be eligible for quantitative synthesis, and 9 studies were included in qualitative synthesis. Results: The meta-analysis revealed significantly lower accuracy, slower reaction time during implicit mentalizing in patients with schizophrenia. The systematic review found different brain activation pattern, further alterations in visual scanning, cue fixation, face looking time, and difficulties in perspective taking. Discussion: Overall, in addition to the deficit of explicit mentalization, implicit mentalization performance is also affected in schizophrenia, if not to the same extent. It seems likely that some elements of implicit mentalization might be relatively unaffected (e.g., detection of intentionality), but the effectiveness is limited by certain neurocognitive deficits. These alterations in implicit mentalizing can also have potential therapeutic consequences.Systematic Review Registration: https://www.crd.york.ac.uk/prospero/, identifier: CRD42021231312.
... However, they detect the ball slightly faster when another agent in the scene (who is not relevant for participants' task) believes it to be present, indicating an influence of the agent's belief on people's responses (Kovács et al., 2010). While a subsequent study proposed that this effect may have been due to a manipulation in the paradigm related to the timing of participants' button presses during attention checks (Phillips et al., 2015), others have adapted the paradigm with matched timings between the different trials, replicated the effect, and consequently ruled out the attention check-based alternative explanation (el Kaddouri et al., 2019). The sensitivity to the other's perspective also appears in joint tasks where participants act together (Elekes, Bródy, et al., 2016;Freundlieb et al., 2016). ...
Article
Full-text available
Humans have a propensity to readily adopt others’ perspective, which often influences their behavior even when it seemingly should not. This altercentric influence has been widely studied in adults, yet we lack an understanding of its ontogenetic origins. The current studies investigated whether 14-month-olds’ search in a box for potential objects is modulated by another person’s belief about the box’s content. We varied the person’s potential belief such that in her presence/absence an object was removed, added, or exchanged for another, leading to her true/false belief about the object’s presence (Experiment 1, n = 96); or transformed into another object, leading to her true/false belief about the object’s identity (i.e., the objects represented under a specific aspect, Experiment 2, n = 32). Infants searched longer if the other person believed that an object remained in the box, showing an altercentric influence early in development. These results suggest that infants spontaneously represent others’ beliefs involving multiple objects and raise the possibility that infants can appreciate that others encode the world under a unique aspect.
... Importantly, however, further research demonstrated that the paradigm used in these studies suffered from subtle confounds in the timing of a critical attention check, and once these confounds were controlled for, or simply removed, the results no longer suggested that participants automatically calculated others' beliefs . Apart from this prominent piece of evidence, there are also a few other studies that have argued in support of automatic belief representation (Bardi, Desmet, & Brass, 2018;El Kaddouri, Bardi, De Bremaeker, Brass, & Wiersema, 2019;van der Wel, Sebanz, & Knoblich, 2014), and considerable evidence that strongly suggests that belief representation is not automatic (Apperly, Riggs, Simpson, Chiavarino, & Samson, 2006; (Apperly, Back, Samson, & France, 2008;Apperly, Samson, & Humphreys, 2009;Schneider, Lam, Bayliss, & Dux, 2012). To illustrate with one example, had participants view videos in which an agent either formed knowledge of the location of an object or instead formed a false belief about the location of the object. ...
Article
We summarize research and theory to show that, from early in human ontogeny, much information about other minds can be gleaned from reading the eyes. This analysis suggests that eyes serve as uniquely human windows into other minds, which critically extends the target article by drawing attention to what might be considered the neurodevelopmental origins of knowledge attribution in humans.
... Importantly, however, further research demonstrated that the paradigm used in these studies suffered from subtle confounds in the timing of a critical attention check, and once these confounds were controlled for, or simply removed, the results no longer suggested that participants automatically calculated others' beliefs . Apart from this prominent piece of evidence, there are also a few other studies that have argued in support of automatic belief representation (Bardi, Desmet, & Brass, 2018;El Kaddouri, Bardi, De Bremaeker, Brass, & Wiersema, 2019;van der Wel, Sebanz, & Knoblich, 2014), and considerable evidence that strongly suggests that belief representation is not automatic (Apperly, Riggs, Simpson, Chiavarino, & Samson, 2006; (Apperly, Back, Samson, & France, 2008;Apperly, Samson, & Humphreys, 2009;Schneider, Lam, Bayliss, & Dux, 2012). To illustrate with one example, had participants view videos in which an agent either formed knowledge of the location of an object or instead formed a false belief about the location of the object. ...
Article
I accept the main thesis of the article according to which representation of knowledge is more basic than representation of belief. But I question the authors’ contention that humans' unique capacity to represent belief does not underwrite the capacity for the accumulation of cultural knowledge.
... Importantly however, further research demonstrated that the paradigm used in these studies suffered from subtle confounds in the timing of a critical attention check, and once these confounds were controlled for, or simply removed, the results no longer suggested that participants automatically calculated others' beliefs (Phillips, et al., 2015). Apart from this prominent piece of evidence, there are also a few other studies that have argued in support of automatic belief representation (Bardi, et al., 2018;El Kaddouri, et al., 2019;van der Wel, et al., 2014), and considerable evidence that strongly suggests that belief representation is not automatic (Apperly, et al., 2006;Kulke, et al., 2019;Low & Edwards, 2018;. ...
Article
Full-text available
Research on the capacity to understand others' minds has tended to focus on representations of beliefs, which are widely taken to be among the most central and basic theory of mind representations. Representations of knowledge, by contrast, have received comparatively little attention and have often been understood as depending on prior representations of belief. After all, how could one represent someone as knowing something if one doesn't even represent them as believing it? Drawing on a wide range of methods across cognitive science, we ask whether belief or knowledge is the more basic kind of representation. The evidence indicates that non-human primates attribute knowledge but not belief, that knowledge representations arise earlier in human development than belief representations, that the capacity to represent knowledge may remain intact in patient populations even when belief representation is disrupted, that knowledge (but not belief) attributions are likely automatic, and that explicit knowledge attributions are made more quickly than equivalent belief attributions. Critically, the theory of mind representations uncovered by these various methods exhibit a set of signature features clearly indicative of knowledge: they are not modality-specific, they are factive, they are not just true belief, and they allow for representations of egocentric ignorance. We argue that these signature features elucidate the primary function of knowledge representation: facilitating learning from others about the external world. This suggests a new way of understanding theory of mind-one that is focused on understanding others' minds in relation to the actual world, rather than independent from it.
Chapter
The presence of conspecifics may affect one’s cognitive processing in a variety of ways. Most effects fall beyond simple social facilitation: we are not only faster in performing a task when we do it with others, but also take into consideration their internal mental states, what they see, know or believe. While there may be clear benefits of taking the perspective of another agent for behavioral predictions, serving social coordination, or defeating competitors, it seems that we generate assumptions about others’ mental states even if the situation does not require it. Current debates target how spontaneous these processes are, and whether they are best described with higher- or lower-level mechanisms. Despite the intensity of the debate, however, we have scarce knowledge regarding the nature of these processes and the influence they exert over our first-person interpretations and inferential commitments. Here we propose that another agent’s presence triggers not only considering and sustaining multiple perspectives on the world, but may also influence the level of description that will be prioritized. To illustrate this point, we analyze examples involving linguistic quantification. Specifically, we discuss whether the perspective of others may (i) foster a more fine-grained retention of episodic information when assessing quantified abstractions, which do not presuppose the consideration of these details, and (ii) lead young learners to widen their semantic commitments when interpreting ambiguous statements.
Article
Social interactions can be stressful, especially if they involve provocation or ambiguity. At the same time, such interactions necessitate social cognition. The question thus arises how stress affects social cognition and how personality attributes modulate this effect. The aim of the current study was to investigate the link between emotional reactivity, physical exercise, and social cognition under stress. As a measure of social cognition, we used spontaneous perspective taking, i.e., the degree to which participants represented the mental state of another agent. Studying young female participants, we investigated how physiological regulation, measured through resting heart-rate variability, is related to spontaneous social perspective taking under stress, and to predicted anger in an ambiguous social scenario. When controlling for resting heart rate, vagally mediated heart-rate variability was negatively correlated with the effect of stress on perspective taking, indicating that good physiological regulation supports social cognition under stress. Further, participants who reported to exercise at least once a week showed higher perspective taking under stress than less active participants. Finally, we found tentative evidence for participants who exercised regularly to show reduced predicted anger in response to an ambiguous provocation. Our findings suggest that good physiological regulation and regular physical exercise support social cognition under stress.
Article
Recent evidence suggests that young infants, as well as nonhuman apes, can anticipate others' behavior based on their false beliefs. While such behaviors have been proposed to be accounted by simple associations between agents, objects, and locations, human adults are undoubtedly endowed with sophisticated theory of mind abilities. For example, they can attribute mental contents about abstract or non-existing entities, or beliefs whose content is poorly specified. While such endeavors may be human specific, it is unclear whether the representational apparatus that allows for encoding such beliefs is present early in development. In four experiments we asked whether 15-month-old infants are able to attribute beliefs with underspecified content, update their content later, and maintain attributed beliefs that are unknown to be true or false. In Experiment 1, infants observed as an agent hid an object to an unspecified location. This location was later revealed in the absence or presence of the agent, and the object was then hidden again to an unspecified location. Then the infants could search for the object while the agent was away. Their search was biased to the revealed location (that could be represented as the potential content of the agent's belief when she had not witnessed the re-hiding), suggesting that they (1) first attributed an underspecified belief to the agent, (2) later updated the content of this belief, and (3) were primed by this content in their own action even though its validity was unknown. This priming effect was absent when the agent witnessed the re-hiding of the object, and thus her belief about the earlier location of the object did not have to be sustained. The same effect was observed when infants searched for a different toy (Experiment 2) or when an additional spatial transformation was introduced (Experiment 4), but not when the spatial transformation disrupted belief updating (Experiment 3). These data suggest that infants' representational apparatus is prepared to efficiently track other agents' beliefs online, encode underspecified beliefs and define their content later, possibly reflecting a crucial characteristic of mature theory of mind: using a metarepresentational format for ascribed beliefs.
Article
Humans are ultrasocial, yet, theories of cognition have often been occupied with the solitary mind. Over the past decade, an increasing volume of work has revealed how individual cognition is influenced by the presence of others. Not only do we rapidly identify others in our environment, but we also align our attention with their attention, which influences what we perceive, represent, and remember, even when our immediate goals do not involve coordination. Here, we refer to the human sensitivity to others and to the targets and content of their attention as 'altercentrism'; and aim to bring seemingly disparate findings together, suggesting that they are all reflections of the altercentric nature of human cognition.
Article
Full-text available
Recently, theory-of-mind research has been revolutionized by findings from novel implicit tasks suggesting that at least some aspects of false-belief reasoning develop earlier in ontogeny than previously assumed and operate automatically throughout adulthood. Although these findings are the empirical basis for far-reaching theories, systematic replications are still missing. This article reports a preregistered large-scale attempt to replicate four influential anticipatory-looking implicit theory-of-mind tasks using original stimuli and procedures. Results showed that only one of the four paradigms was reliably replicated. A second set of studies revealed, further, that this one paradigm was no longer replicated once confounds were removed, which calls its validity into question. There were also no correlations between paradigms, and thus, no evidence for their convergent validity. In conclusion, findings from anticipatory-looking false-belief paradigms seem less reliable and valid than previously assumed, thus limiting the conclusions that can be drawn from them.
Article
Full-text available
The socio-communicative difficulties of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are hypothesized to be caused by a specific deficit in the ability to represent one’s own and others’ mental states, referred to as Theory of Mind or mentalizing. However, many individuals with ASD show successful performance on explicit measures of mentalizing, and for this reason, the deficit is thought to be better captured by measures of spontaneous mentalizing. While there is initial behavioral support for this hypothesis, spontaneous mentalizing in ASD has not yet been studied at the neural level. Recent findings indicate involvement of the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ) in both explicit and spontaneous mentalizing (Bardi, Desmet, Nijhof, Wiersema, & Brass, 2016). In the current study, we investigated brain activation during explicit and spontaneous mentalizing in adults with ASD by means of fMRI. Based on our hypothesis of a core mentalizing deficit in ASD, decreased rTPJ activity was expected for both forms of mentalizing. A group of 24 adults with ASD and 21 neurotypical controls carried out a spontaneous and an explicit version of the same mentalizing task. They watched videos in which both they themselves and another agent formed a belief about the location of an object (belief formation phase). Only in the explicit task version participants were instructed to report the agent’s belief on some trials. At the behavioral level, no group differences were revealed in either of the task versions. A planned region-of-interest analysis of the rTPJ showed that this region was more active for false- than for true-belief formation, independent of task version, especially when the agent’s belief had a positive content (when the agent was expecting the object). This effect of belief was absent in adults with ASD. A whole-brain analysis revealed reduced activation in the anterior middle temporal pole in ASD for false- versus true-belief trials, independent of task version. Our findings suggest neural differences between adults with ASD and neurotypical controls both during spontaneous and explicit mentalizing, and indicate the rTPJ to be crucially involved in ASD. Moreover, the possible role of the anterior middle temporal pole in disturbed mentalizing in ASD deserves further attention. The finding that these neural differences do not necessarily lead to differential performance warrants further research.
Article
Full-text available
Spontaneous mentalizing ability has been linked to symptoms severity in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Here we investigated whether in neurotypicals, higher levels of ASD symptomatology could also be linked to lower levels of spontaneous mentalizing, by comparing neurotypicals scoring high with those scoring low on the short Autism Spectrum Quotient. Participants watched movies during which they, and another agent, formed beliefs about the location of an object. These beliefs could influence reaction times (RT) to that object in the outcome phase. We expected participants with more ASD symptoms to show less spontaneous mentalizing, as reflected by a smaller effect of the other agent's beliefs on RT patterns (the ToM index). In contrast, the effect of own beliefs on RTs, reflecting an egocentric bias, was expected to be larger in the high-scoring group. Results showed that groups differed in the effect of the agent's beliefs; the ToM index was highly significant in the low-scoring group, while being absent in the high-scoring group. No difference in egocentric bias was observed. These findings suggest that the relationship between levels of ASD symptomatology and spontaneous mentalizing is not only present in individuals with ASD, but also in the neurotypical population.
Article
Full-text available
Addressing shortcomings of the self-report Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS), two studies were conducted to reconstruct the item domain of the scale. The first study resulted in the development of a new twenty-item version of the scale—the TAS-20. The TAS-20 demonstrated good internal consistency and test-retest reliability, and a three-factor structure theoretically congruent with the alexithymia construct. The stability and replicability of this three-factor structure were demonstrated in the second study with both clinical and nonclinical populations by the use of confirmatory factor analysis.
Article
Full-text available
The concept of mentalizing has been widely studied, but almost exclusively through tasks with explicit instructions. Recent studies suggest that people also mentalize on a more implicit level. However, to our knowledge, no study to date has directly contrasted the effects of implicit and explicit mentalizing processes on an implicit dependent measure within-subjects. We implemented this by using two versions of an object detection task, differing only on secondary catch questions. We hypothesized that if explicit mentalizing relies on complementary processes beyond those underlying implicit mentalizing, this would be reflected in enhanced belief effects in the explicit version. Twenty-eight healthy adults watched movies in which, during the first phase, both they themselves and another agent formed a belief about the location of a ball, and although irrelevant, these beliefs could influence their ball detection reaction times in the second phase. After this response phase, there were occasional catch questions that were different for the explicit and implicit task version. Finally, self-report measures of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptomatology were included, as the literature suggests that ASD is related to a specific deficit in implicit mentalizing. Both in the explicit and implicit version, belief conditions had a significant effect on reaction times, with responses being slower when neither the participant nor the other agent expected the ball to be present compared to all other conditions. Importantly, after the implicit version, participants reported no explicit mentalizing awareness. In our neuroty-pical sample, ASD symptoms were not found to correlate with either explicit or implicit men-talizing. In conclusion, the reaction time patterns in the explicit and implicit version of the task show strikingly similar effects of mentalizing, indicating that participants processed beliefs to the same extent regardless of whether they mentalized explicitly or implicitly, with no additional effects for explicit processing.
Article
Full-text available
Theory of mind (ToM) research has shown that adults with high functioning autism (HFA) demonstrate typical performance on tasks that require explicit belief reasoning, despite clear social difficulties in everyday life situations. In the current study, we used implicit belief manipulations that are task-irrelevant and therefore less susceptible to strategies. In a ball detection task, it was shown that neurotypical individuals detect a ball faster if an agent believed the ball was present. We predicted that adults with high functioning autism (HFA) would not show this effect. While we found a numerical difference in the hypothesized direction, we did not find a reliable group. Interestingly, the implicit ToM-index showed a strong negative correlation with both self-reported and observational measures of social difficulties in the HFA group. This suggests that the relationship between implicit ToM reasoning and the symptomatology of HFA might be subtler than assumed.
Article
Full-text available
In recent work, Kovács, Téglás, and Endress (2010) argued that human adults automatically represented other agents' beliefs even when those beliefs were completely irrelevant to the task being performed. In a series of 13 experiments, we replicated these previous findings but demonstrated that the effects found arose from artifacts in the experimental paradigm. In particular, the critical findings demonstrating automatic belief computation were driven by inconsistencies in the timing of an attention check, and thus do not provide evidence for automatic theory of mind in adults. © The Author(s) 2015.
Article
Theory of Mind (ToM) is thought to play a key role in social information processing as it refers to the ability of individuals to represent the mental states of others (e.g., intentions, desires, beliefs). A provocative hypothesis has been put forward which espouses the existence of two ToM systems: one that is implicit and involves the automatic analysis of the belief states of others and another that is not automatic and is involved in explicitly reasoning about others' mental states. Recently, Phillips et al. (2015) have suggested that there is limited evidence for automatic ToM processing, after identifying a confound in a previous high-profile paper supporting the existence of this cognitive operation in infants and adults (Kovács, Téglás, & Endress, 2010). Here, we take a broader view of the literature and find, contrary to the conclusions of Phillips et al., that there is a substantial body of literature which demonstrates that adult humans are able to engage in unconscious and unintentional, and thus automatic, analyses of others' mental states. However, whether this ability is best described under a one, two or multiple systems ToM account remains to be determined.
Article
There is extensive discussion on whether spontaneous and explicit forms of ToM are based on the same cognitive/neural mechanisms or rather reflect qualitatively different processes. For the first time, we analyzed the BOLD signal for false belief processing by directly comparing spontaneous and explicit task versions. In both versions, participants watched videos of a scene including an agent who acquires a true or false belief about the location of an object (belief formation phase). At the end of the movies (outcome phase), participants had to react to the presence of the object. During the belief formation phase, greater activity was found for false vs. true belief trials in the right posterior parietal cortex (PPC). The ROI analysis of the right temporo-parietal-junction (TPJ), confirmed this observation. Moreover, the anterior medial prefrontal cortex (aMPFC) was active during the outcome phase, being sensitive to violation of both the participant's and agent's expectations about the location of the object. Activity in the TPJ and aMPFC was not modulated by the spontaneous/explicit task. Overall, these data show that neural mechanisms for spontaneous and explicit ToM overlap. Interestingly, a dissociation between TPJ and aMPFC for belief tracking and outcome evaluation, respectively, was also found.