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The Role of Mindreading in a Pluralist Framework of Social Cognition

Conference Paper

The Role of Mindreading in a Pluralist Framework of Social Cognition

Abstract

How do we manage to understand the minds of others and usefully interact with them? In the last decade, the debate on these issues has developed from unitary to pluralist approaches. According to the latter, we make use of multiple socio-cognitive strategies when predicting, interpretating, and reacting to the behavior of others. This means a departure from the view of mindreading as the main strategy underlying social cognition. In this paper, we address the question of the controversial status of mindreading within such a pluralist framework. Contrary to many other accounts, we ascribe mindreading an equal status in a pluralist framework. Mindreading is required for a variety of central situations in life and importantly underlies the way in which we understand other people. Mindreading is also no less reliable than alternative strategies; reliability is not so much a matter of different competing socio-cognitive strategies, but rather of their complementary use.
The Role of Mindreading in a Pluralist Framework of Social Cognition
Julia Wolf (julia.wolf-n8i@rub.de)
Institut for Philosophy II, Ruhr University Bochum, Universitätsstraße 150
44801 Bochum, Germany
Sabrina Coninx (sabrina.coninx@rub.de)
Institut for Philosophy II, Ruhr University Bochum, Universitätsstraße 150
44801 Bochum, Germany
Abstract
How do we manage to understand the minds of others and
usefully interact with them? In the last decade, the debate on
these issues has developed from unitary to pluralist approaches.
According to the latter, we make use of multiple socio-
cognitive strategies when predicting, interpretating, and
reacting to the behavior of others. This means a departure from
the view of mindreading as the main strategy underlying social
cognition. In this paper, we address the question of the
controversial status of mindreading within such a pluralist
framework. Contrary to many other accounts, we ascribe
mindreading an equal status in a pluralist framework.
Mindreading is required for a variety of central situations in life
and importantly underlies the way in which we understand
other people. Mindreading is also no less reliable than
alternative strategies; reliability is not so much a matter of
different competing socio-cognitive strategies, but rather of
their complementary use.
Keywords: Pluralism; Social Understanding; Mindreading;
Theory Theory, Simulation Theory, Interaction Theory; Direct
Perception; Behavioral Scripts; Stereotypes
1. Introduction
From cradle to grave, successful interaction with others forms
a fundamental part of human life. As newborns, our survival
substantially depends on the interaction with others, and even
after that it remains a critical factor for our striving and
thriving as adults. Researchers in social cognition have been
interested in the question of what this ability consists in: how
does human social cognition work? How can humans
usefully predict, interpret, and react to the behavior of others?
Broadly construed, the debate on social cognition was long
stuck in the dispute between Theory Theory (TT) (e.g. Baron-
Cohen, 1995; Gopnik & Wellman, 1992) and Simulation
Theory (ST) (e.g. Goldman, 2006), or combinations thereof.
Although these accounts disagreed on how exactly the
attribution of mental states is implemented, they all agreed
that social cognition is based on mindreading, i.e. the
attribution of non-observable mental states to others. Thus,
the debate was about whether mindreading was theory or
simulation based, or both. That social cognition depended
centrally on mindreading was not questioned. A key
development took place in the literature with the introduction
of Interactionist Accounts (IT) which criticized mindreading-
1 For a more detailed description of TT, ST, and IT including their
advantages and disadvantages see Coninx & Newen (2018).
based approaches on the basis of an unnecessary over-
intellectualization of social cognition (Gallagher, 2001;
Gallagher & Hutto, 2008). Instead they argued for a more
basic interaction-based approach.1
TT, ST, and IT are, originally, all unitary theories this
means that they propose a single strategy underlying social
cognition. Even if they allow for the general possibility of
multiple strategies to be employed in social cognition, only
one of them is supposed to function as the default or basis
underlying the others. In recent years, however, there has
been a move away from such unitary theories towards
Pluralist Accounts (Andrews, 2012; Fiebich, 2015; Fiebich et
al., 2017; Newen, 2015; Spaulding, 2018). That is, IT was
right in arguing that not all our social cognition depends on
mindreading, we have alternative, more basic and interactive
means of understanding others. However, it is not the case
that we simply replace mindreading as the golden standard of
social cognition by means of another socio-cognitive
strategy. According to pluralist approaches, there is no main
strategy underlying social cognition, instead we make use of
a variety of strategies to understand others. Consequently,
mindreading along with more direct and interactive processes
would be deployed in social cognition.
While this general pluralist direction in the recent debate is
promising, we want to investigate and question the status of
mindreading within current pluralist approaches to social
cognition. In part due to a remaining influence of IT, many
pluralist accounts argue that mindreading only has a
subordinate status within social cognition (e.g. Fiebich et al.,
2017). In this paper, we aim to establish the central status that
mindreading has in social cognition, even if we acknowledge
that alternative strategies also play an important role.
Therefore, we argue for an equal status of mindreading within
a pluralistic framework, i.e. where mindreading is treated as
a socio-cognitive strategy on par with others. The point is not
to show the superiority of theory-based inference or
simulation. However, we question the understanding of
mindreading as an error-prone last straw that we rely on only
in those rare cases when allegedly more reliable alternatives
are not available.
The paper proceeds as follows: in Section 2, we will
introduce pluralism and some of the main proponents of this
view, highlighting why they allocate only a subordinate
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status to mindreading. In contrast to this, we will argue in
Section 3 that mindreading is a socio-cognitive strategy
employed in various central situations of human life that
proves more reliable than many defenders of pluralism so far
think. Note that our aim is not to defend pluralism per se
against more unitary accounts of social cognition, but rather
to shed light on the controversial status of mindreading within
such a pluralist framework. Section 4 summarizes our results.
2. The Plurality of Socio-Cognitive
Strategies
The basic idea of pluralism concerning social cognition is that
there is no one fundamental strategy of social cognition, but
that humans use a variety of strategies depending on what
serves the context best (e.g. Fiebich, 2015). In the following,
we are about to introduce the four most commonly discussed
socio-cognitive strategies that pluralist accounts aim to
incorporate (without aiming for completeness): i) theory-
based inference-making, ii) simulation, iii) direct perception,
and iv) rule-following. Theory-based inference making and
simulation count as mindreading strategies as they rely on the
attribution of mental states by indirect means, i.e. theorizing
or simulation others minds. Direct perception is also
employed for the attribution of mental states but without the
intermediate step of theorizing or simulating involved in
mindreading. Rule following refers to those kinds of
strategies that enable us to successfully interact with others
without having to make recourse to mental states at all.
First, according to defenders of TT, mindreading relies on
the deployment of a folk psychological theory, i.e. a coherent
system of law-like assumptions, used for systematic
inferences about the mental states of others. This ability is
supposed to depend either on a dynamic process of
prediction, learning, and modification (Gopnik & Wellman,
1992) or the maturing of an innate module (Baron-Cohen,
1995). These accounts disagree with respect to the
acquirement of mindreading abilities, but define mindreading
in terms of theory-based inference-making. For example,
when we watch another person on the train take out a book
and then desperately rummage in their bag and feel their
pockets while their reading glasses are set on their head, we
can ascribe to the person the desire to find their glasses and
unawareness about the fact that their glasses are on their head.
We can do so based on a set of law-like assumptions of how
people in general behave and what their mental states are
when they behave a certain way.
Second, according to defenders of ST, we attribute non-
observable mental states to other by running simulations.
That is, we put ourselves ‘into the shoes’ of another person
and simulate the beliefs, desires, intentions, or emotions that
we would have or experience if we would be the respective
person in the respective situation (Goldman, 2006). This
includes the projection of oneself into the other’s position as
well as certain adjustments taking into account differences
between oneself and the respective other. For example, when
seeing another peson giving a talk in front of a great audience,
we might infer their emotional state (e.g. anxiety) by
imagining how we would feel if we would be in their place
while we might also take into account that the other is
particularly nervous as they wish to be admired by one of the
participants in the audience. Both TT and ST can be
considered different strategies of mindreading. As our
concern in this paper is defending the role of mindreading,
we will not always distinguish between theory-based
inferences and simulations in what follows and speak instead
of strategies of mindreading in general.
Third, defenders of IT (Gallagher, 2001; Gallagher &
Hutto, 2008) have criticized TT and ST on the basis that
demanding strategies of mindreading are not necessary for a
vast majority of social cognition. Instead they argue for a
more basic interaction-based understanding of others that
allows for smart perception. That is, in many social situations
we do not need to infer or simulate the mental states of others,
but are able to directly perceive them based on social cues
such as facial expressions, body posture, or gestures
(Gallagher, 2008; Zahavi, 2011). For example, when jointly
carrying a table, we might be able to directly perceive the
intention of the other person concerning the direction in
which they are turning simply by means of their body posture
or eye gaze. Similarly, it is suggested that we can directly
perceive emotional mental states, such as anger. We do not
need to engage in theory-based inferences or run simulations
when engaging with an angry person in order to determine
their mental state, we can directly see that they are angry.
Fourth, it has been argued that we can predict the behavior
of others solely based on our knowledge that people follow
certain social rules and show behavioral regularities. In other
words, we can interact with others on the bases of rule
following without attributing any mental states. Social
interaction is often significantly shaped by stereotypes and
social biases about how members of certain groups act
(Andrews, 2012; Spaulding, 2018), by our expectations
concerning the behavioral routines of an individual (Fiebich
& Coltheart, 2015; Newen, 2015), or the scripts applying to
standardized interactions in social situations (Coninx &
Newen, 2018; Newen, 2015). For example, I can make
predictions about the driving style of taxi drivers based on
stereotypes I have about people of this profession; or about a
friends’ behavior based on my knowledge of their habits.
Further, there are certain behavioral rules when one gets on
the bus, such as showing the ticket to the driver, which allow
for predicting the behavior of others and navigating this
context without needing to attribute mental states.
As it stands, the pluralistic agenda seems promising. We
have moved away from the idea that there is a single basis for
social cognition and instead are faced with a variety of
strategies which can be employed flexibly. Mindreading, that
is attributing mental states to others via either simulation or
theorizing, is just one option. Endorsing a pluralist
framework, however, raises the question of what the status of
mindreading is within such a framework.
While little has been written explicitly on how different
strategies relate to each other (see Westra, 2018 for an
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exception), it seems generally assumed that the different
strategies should be seen as alternative means of social
cognition, where mindreading plays only a subordinate role.
The deemphasizing of mindreading in comparison to other
strategies seems motivated in reference to three interrelated
criteria. Quantitative criterion: mindreading is a little used
strategy in comparison to alternatives (e.g. Gallagher &
Hutto, 2008). Centrality criterion: mindreading is not
employed in central situations of social interaction, but
occurs only in the periphery of human life (e.g. Fiebich et al.,
2017). Reliability criterion: mindreading is less reliable than
alternative strategies (e.g. Andrews, 2017). In other words,
while mindreading is a strategy used in social cognition, it is
rarely employed, and if so, of minor relevance to understand
central situations of social understanding and more error-
prone than alternative socio-cognitive strategies.
It is this marginalization of mindreading within the
pluralist framework which we object to in this paper. It
should be noted, however, that this will not be a point about
the frequency with which mindreading is used. We consider
the discussion of the quantitative criterion as little fruitful
given that we lack a clear standard on how to measure the
frequency with which particular socio-cognitive strategies
are used. Even if we did, it would require an in-depth
comprehensive empirical investigation to determine the use
of each concrete strategy. Further, even if it shows that we
use mindreading less frequently than some of the alternative
strategies, this does not imply that they are less central or
reliable which we consider more relevant for the status to be
ascribed to a socio-cognitive strategy in a pluralistic
framework. In what follows we will therefore focus on the
centrality criterion and the reliability criterion in order to
highlight the equal status that mindreading should be
allocated within the pluralist framework.
3. The Controversial Status of
Mindreading
Our argument has the following two strands. First, we show
that mindreading is not merely used in extraordinary
circumstances but in various central situations of our social
life that direct perception and rule following cannot account
for (centrality criterion). Second, we argue that mindreading
constitutes a socio-cognitive strategy that is at least as reliable
as suggested alternatives (reliability criterion).
3.1. The Centrality of Mindreading
It is a common argument given by defenders of pluralist
accounts that mindreading is only used in very unusual
circumstances where alternative and less demanding
strategies cannot be employed. That is, mindreading might be
used in some situations but these are not central to our ability
to successfully predict, interpret, and react to the behavior of
other. We might need mindreading as a back-up option for
extraordinary cases, but it is not key to our striving and
thriving as social beings. Testing the centrality of a socio-
cognitive strategy is not a simple empirical matter, as
normative aspects play a role in determining what constitutes
crucial aspects of human life, including aspects of pure
biological survival, socio-economic status, or personal
fulfillment. We will therefore not attempt to develop a strict
measure here. Rather, we want to point out different
situations in which mindreading necessarily comes into play
and identify them as relevant paradigmatic cases of human
interaction. This argument is based on two steps. First, we
must recognize that there are certain cases of social cognition
in which mindreading is necessarily employed as alternative
strategies come to their limit. Second, we must show that
these cases are not just side-phenomena of human life.
A first point to note is that the assumption that
mindreading is used only in unusual cases is based, among
other things, on a common overestimation of the cases in
which socio-cognitive strategies other than mindreading can
be employed. For example, it is often assumed that
mindreading is only of relevance when we interact with
people who substantially differ from us (e.g., people from an
unfamiliar culture background or with certain impairments in
social interaction). On the contrary, we think that the
application of mindreading is much broader given that, taken
on their own, all socio-cognitive strategies are quite limited,
including direct perception and rule following.
With sufficient background knowledge about a person or
situation, smart perception might allow us to directly access
not only basic intentions, such as the direction of another
person’s movement, but also “higher” mental states, such as
more complex emotions (e.g., Gallagher, 2008). However,
direct perception has its limits, for example, when there are
insufficient social cues (e.g., in written communication via
letters, emails, text messages, or social media) or when the
social situation becomes more complex and multilayered
(e.g., when a person tries to cover up their actual feelings out
of shame by imitating the bodily cues of another emotion).
The same is true of many cases of rule following which only
has application in situations in which the attribution of mental
states is not required. For example, we might be able to
predict the behavior of others and coordinate our movement
when being on a busy bus. However, we will not be able to
know what another person on the bus thinks when staring at
us based purely on rule following. Rule following and direct
perception may complement each other in some cases
without the need to theorize about or simulate the minds of
others. A crucial area that remains inaccessible, however,
relates to interactions that focus on the complex idiosyncratic
mental states of others (e.g. their world view, existential
concerns, or life goals) that are constitutive of their
personality. These play a central role, for example, for long
term relationships and are accessible neither via direct
perception nor rule following (Coninx & Newen, 2018).
Taken together, direct perception and rule following alone
seem insufficient for certain social encounters. One could
argue that this is unproblematic for recent pluralistic
approaches. These allow for mindreading as a subordinate
socio-cognitive strategy employed in particular situations.
This may include those situations in which we interact with
people that profoundly differ from us, communicate in
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written format, have to master contractual social situations,
or establish in-depth relationships with individuals. However,
in order for this to continue to justify the attribution of a
subordinate status to mindreading, precisely these situations
would have to turn out to be marginal phenomena of human
life. In a second step, we therefore intend to show that this is
not the case. On the contrary, mindreading is necessary to
enable central spheres of our life. In order to show this, we
will address the previously indicated examples in more detail.
We do not assume that any of these examples on its own can
confirm our thesis, but that they jointly speak for the
attribution of an equal status to mindreading in a pluralist
framework.
First, mindreading is often argued to be an important
strategy in understanding people who differ substantially
from us with respect to their behavior, for example, who
come from different cultures or suffer from disorders
impairing social interaction (see also Newen, 2015). In these
cases, we cannot always rely on direct perception because the
given perceptual cues might not indicate the same mental
states or behaviors. For example, patients suffering from
Parkinson’s disease are impaired with respect to the facial
expressivity of emotions (e.g. Bologna et al., 2013). Hence,
socio-cognitive strategies of direct perception are of limited
use in understanding these patients. The same might apply in
situations in which we interact with people of a particular
cultural background, in which, for example, emotional
expressions are systematically suppressed or related to
different mental states and corresponding reactions than we
are used to. Moreover, past experiences, social roles, or
stereotypes would also not be of help in those situations in
which we are not particularly familiar with the relevant social
group to which a subject belongs. For many people these
situations are clearly peripheral occurrences. It should be
noted, however, that for some people interactions with people
from various different cultures are a central part of their daily
lives, such as in the financial sector or the travel industry.
Even for people for whom interactions with yet unfamiliar
cultures are rare events, they can still be perceived as
particularly significant experiences for their personal
development. Finally, it can be added that mindreading might
also be needed for various common interactions with young
children. Young children substantially differ from adults as
they are not yet fully familiarized with the respective social
norms and behavioral patterns and their bodily cues often
only indicate the need for further considerations.
At this point it is worth highlighting the role of
mindshaping. The idea of mindshaping is that we not only
passively interpret the mental states of others, but actively
shape these in order to make another person more
comprehensible (Mameli, 2001; McGeer, 2007; Zawidzki,
2008). The attribution of unobservable mental states to others
does not exclusively serve the accurate representation of
mental states and the accurate prediction of behavior, but
allows us to influence the mental states of others and thereby
facilitate coordination. This is a process which probably plays
an important role in our interactions with children, but also
when meeting different cultures upon which mindshaping
can take place in order to increase mutual comprehensibility.
For example, our folk psychological assumptions about the
mental states of others might turn into self-fulfilling
prophecies as we ascribe certain beliefs, desires, intentions,
or emotions to children and expect them to behave
accordingly. What is important about this is that the
adjustments which take place are not merely at the level of
behavior i.e. that we learn to behave according to the
practices of a society in line with the rule following strategy
- but that this is supposed to directly modify the mental states
we actually have in order to allow for better mindreading.
Mindreading and mindshaping can thereby be considered
complementary in that effective mindshaping depends on
mindreading and vice versa (Peters, 2019).
Second, we also tend to rely on mindreading when a social
situation emerges that offers only a small number of
perceptual cues (Baron-Cohen, 1995). Imagine, for example,
a situation in which we read an email from an editor or a
comment posted under a blog entry. In these cases, we engage
in forms of social interactions but all typical cues of direct
perception are missing. Thus, particularly in situations of this
kind, we seem to rely on the attribution of mental states by
means of theory-based inferences or simulations in order to
successfully engage in social understanding. It might be
objected that although in these cases interactive mechanisms
cannot be at work, other processes, such as social roles or past
experiences may be employed rather than mindreading. For
example, I may have interacted with editors via mail on a
regular basis and, therefore, I can rely on certain social scripts
or stereotypes in order to explain or predict behavior without
explicitly attributing a mental state. Notwithstanding, we
often engage in forms of communication in which we have
no general rules that we can rely on. For example, an early
career researchers might lack previous experience with
editors and even for advanced researchers it might appear
difficult to associate a random commentator with a social role
that allows for the prediction of behavior without the
engagement of mindreading. With the progress of
digitalization in our life and the fact that we use written
communication via various media for central aspects of our
professional and private lives, it seems difficult to see only a
peripheral role for mindreading here.
Third, socio-cognitive strategies of direct perception and
rule following are of limited use when a social situation
becomes more complex and multilayered. While it is often
emphasized that human beings are cooperative and this
collaborative interaction is a driving force in the development
of human social cognition (Tomasello, 2020), we should not
forget that we are also a highly competitive species. While
we may be willing to directly reveal our mental states in some
contexts, often we are more withdrawn with strangers or
actively try to deceive people. There are many different
reasons why people try to hide their actual mental states from
others. In some cases, a friend may act as if everything is fine
because they are ashamed to about their feelings. In another
case, a co-worker may act friendly so that we do not realize
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their intention of plotting against us to receive a promotion.
In these cases, cues from direct perception may be missing or
unreliable and need to be supplemented with more complex
mindreading strategies. Rule following cannot replace this,
since this is about understanding the mental states of a
specific individual in a concrete life situation whose behavior
might deviate from the known general rules. These situations
require working out what another person is actually thinking,
as opposed to what they want you to think; or thinking about
how you need to behave in order to make another person
think you are thinking something else then you actually do.
For these complex activities, it seems unhelpful to resort
purely on rule-following strategies which offer only a rather
behaviorist approach in the absence of mindreading. Being
able to engage in ‘mind games’, identify tactical deception,
and develop counter-strategies seems central for the
biological, socio-economic, and personal thriving of humans,
even though they might not be used as frequently.
Fourth, mindreading is a central socio-cognitive strategy in
that it is fundamental for how we understand others. Stueber
(2012) has highlighted that mindreading - or more
specifically the ability to attribute mental states to others in
order to explain why someone acted the way they did - is
essential for understanding other people as rational beings.
Even if we do not always need to be able to explain the other
person’s actions in terms of their mental states in order to
interact with them, being in principle able to do so is required
for our understanding of others as minded and rational
beings. This is something which goes beyond direct
perception because often one’s reasons for action, including
also background beliefs and assumptions are not something
which can be directly perceived in a particular moment. In
this sense mindreading must be seen as a central pillar of
social understanding, not because we use it so often, but
because it underlies a fundamental aspect of our
understanding of other people. Beyond this, mindreading also
allows us to build and maintain person-centered relationships
with others as individuals. Rule following strategies are
necessarily limited when it comes to understanding others as
an individual as rules and norms tend to be broader
generalizations which are not subject to individual
differences. Even if we do have rules for the idiosyncrasies
of individuals (e.g. Chris goes for a jog every morning at
6:30) these only allow for limited behaviorist predictions. But
it is specifically these individual differences in terms of
beliefs, life goals, or fears which are essential for establishing
close bonds with individual people. The corresponding
attributions also elude direct perception because the set of
beliefs, desires, emotions, and the like that characterize an
individual are not directly perceivable in a single situation.
This is especially true when we are just getting to know a
person. Interestingly, situations in which we need to get to
know others as individuals might occur regularly in personal,
but also in professional contexts. This applies especially to
people working in educational or economic jobs which
require developing learning strategies adequate for
individuals or reacting to individual preferences to make
convincing offers. In particular, mindreading is also required
for the maintenance of person-centered long-term
relationships going beyond the here and now. That is, we
need to attribute complex sets of mental states to keep close
relationships with our colleagues, friends, partners, and
families.
What this aims to illustrate is that even if we only employ
mindreading rarely, mindreading nonetheless underlies much
of our understanding of others. It is clear that we do not only
see others as objects. But our understanding of others also
goes beyond merely seeing them as minded beings: we
understand that other people are and complex rational beings
with an individualized perspective on the world. It is
mindreading which allows us to form this conception, even if
the strategy itself is less used in day-to-day life. As such,
cases in which we employ mindreading in this manner might
be less common but they might prove most meaningful and
rememberable to us.
Taken together, these examples show that mindreading
plays a central role in social understanding. In the literature,
we often find idealized descriptions of situations in which a
single socio-cognitive strategy is employed. In many of them,
mindreading finds no application. However, those cases in
which mindreading is actually employed are not necessarily
peripheral to human life. Moreover, we assume that in real
life, the plurality of socio-cognitive strategies are not used in
strict isolation. In the contrary, humans use all available
means in a situation to predict, interpret, and react to the
behavior of others in the best possible manner. Therefore, it
seems more likely that theory-based inference-making,
simulation, direct perception, and rule following are used
simultaneously as complementary strategies (see also
Spaulding, 2018; Westra, 2018). For example, in aiming to
understand and predict the behavior of another person,
perceptual cues as well as stereotypes might feed into the
ascription of a mental state via mindreading. Moreover,
mindreading can influence direct perception or rule following
by constraining the search space for perceptual cues or
activating certain stereotypes rather than others. This does not
exclude that in some cases only one socio-cognitive strategy
is employed. The decisive aspect is, however, that
mindreading does not only come into play in the periphery of
human social interaction.
3.2. The Reliability of Mindreading
A further argument often raised against mindreading is that it
is an unreliable strategy compared to the alternative
strategies. For example, in areas in which we are strongly
dependent on mindreading such as communication via social
media we seem to find more error and misunderstandings.
The conclusion drawn from this is that mindreading is error
prone and should therefore only be used when alternative
socio-cognitive strategies are not available.
A first point to note about this is that it is unclear to what
extent the reliability of mindreading (or any of the alternative
strategies) can be assessed. Westra (2020) argues that we
currently do not have any good means of determining the
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reliability of mindreading. The reason for this is that
reliability of mindreading is often assessed through
comparison with self-report. In other words, whether we
correctly attributed a mental state depends on whether this
corresponds to the person’s self-report. However, there are
reasons to be skeptical that such an introspective self-report
is always accurate. For this reason, it would be difficult to
empirically determine whether mindreading really is accurate
or not. Therefore, we are once again confronted with the
problem of establishing a clear method to adequately
empirically test a criterion that is supposed to speak for a
marginalized status of mindreading in a pluralist framework.
But despite this, perhaps there is some motivation for being
concerned about the reliability of mindreading. As mentioned
above, it does seem that areas in which we are predominantly
limited to only mindreading, such as online interactions,
strategies are more prone to error and misunderstandings.
However, the situations in which mindreading is the only
strategy available to us are usually rather complex situations
where we must make decisions and judgements based on less
information than otherwise, or we have to engage in highly
specific and individualized mental state attribution. Given the
complexity of these scenarios, it does not seem surprising that
we would find more error here, simply owed to the situation
itself rather than the strategy of mindreading employed.
A different reason for being concerned about the reliability
of mindreading is the vast variety of mental states that could
be attributed to explain behavior. Andrews (2017) notes that
there is no clear one-to-one correspondence between mental
states and behavior and that for this reason mental state
attributions are likely to be false. For example, there are many
mental states which could explain someone’s behavior of
going to the shop the need for a particular food item, the
desire to prepare for a party, etc. Similarly, there are many
behaviors which the desire for a drink could give rise to. This
would make predicting a behavior based on a mental state
unreliable. In response to this, we might question the level of
detail required for most everyday interactions if we are
attributing relatively broad and unspecific mental states or
predicting broad types of behavior this would seem to be less
of a concern. More importantly, however, the alternative
strategies are also not free from this problem. For example,
there is also no one-to-one relationship between behavior and
rules or norms of society: one and the same behavior can be
in accordance with different rules, and norms do not always
mandate one specific behavior. Similarly, concerning direct
perception, there are multiple reasons why a person might
smile they may be genuinely happy, or they are being polite,
or smiling to hide their true feelings.2 Purely seeing a smiling
face might therefore prove insufficient to attribute one
particular mental state with certainty.
This point is true more generally: the accuracy of all socio-
cognitive strategies often depends on how much background
information we have available to us. If we have a lot of
2 Ekman, Friesen, & O’Sullivan (1988) have famously argued that
there are different types of smile and that a genuine smile differs
from a fake one. While this may allow an expert to spot the
background information, for example, we know the situation
well and we are familiar with the person in question, then all
strategies of social cognition used are likely to be more
reliable. Background information is crucial in constraining
the search space of mental states to attribute to the other
person, but similarly it is also needed to constrain the
interpretation of another person’s behavior based on rule
following (see also Coninx & Newen, 2018).
One reason why mindreading might often be considered
less reliable is that some of the stereotypical examples
highlighted above where mindreading is especially needed,
are cases in which we have relatively little background
information, for example, when meeting a new person or
engaging with strangers online. In these situations, we first
need to gain information about the other person in order to
improve the reliability of our understanding of them.
However, this lack of reliability is due to the lack of
background information rather than mindreading itself.
A final point to note is that all three socio-cognitive
strategies considered here should be seen as playing an
important role in gaining information. As such, our ability to
understand others is likely to be most accurate when we are
able to make use of a combination of these strategies. When
interacting with other people we combine background
information, as well as all other information we can gain via
direct perception, rule following, and mindreading in order to
make the most accurate interpretation of the situation. As
such, mindreading is not only an ability which gets brought
in when the other abilities fail, but a further important source
of information which supplements and enriches the
information we gain from other strategies.
Fully working out how the different epistemic strategies
involved in social cognition interrelate would go beyond the
scope of this paper but the basic idea that we derive and
combine information for all socio-cognitive strategies can be
illustrated with an example. Imagine we meet a friend at a
party who does not greet us and seems to avoid us on purpose.
This constitutes a violation of the norm concerning general
behavior expected from friends as well as this particular
friend who has never acted like this before. This prompts the
need for the employment of socio-cognitive strategies other
than rule following to determine why our friend is behaving
in such manner. Perhaps we can directly perceive that the
other person intentionally avoids eye contact and we engage
in mindreading in order to determine why this is the case.
This mindreading is then itself influenced and constrained by
the information we have about the person or the situation, e.g.
do they show a similar behavior with respect to other people
or only us. Further, in conversation mindreading strategies
can be updated and combined with cues from direct
perception, such as facial expressions indicating whether our
friend is more likely to be angry at misbehavior on our part
or ashamed at misbehavior on theirs. In general, this
illustrates that epistemic strategies of social cognition are
difference, it is questionable whether this really is something which
is commonly noticed in social interactions, especially if the other
person is less familiar to us.
3046
often used in a mutually supporting and flexible manner in
order to best meet the demands of a situation.
4. Conclusion
In this paper, we have argued for the importance of
mindreading as an equal socio-cognitive strategy within a
pluralist framework. Contrary to what is often supposed,
mindreading is required for a variety of social situations and
is especially crucial for the maintenance of interpersonal
relationships. Mindreading might therefore also be
considered a central strategy of social cognition because it
opens up new spheres of social life. Furthermore, we have
argued that there is no reason for considering mindreading to
be less reliable than alternative strategies of social cognition.
In arguing for this version of pluralism, we have stressed the
importance of thinking of the different strategies not only as
alternatives but as complementary elements. An upcoming
task for future pluralist accounts is to provide a more detailed
account of how the different strategies interact and
complement each other in social cognition in order to provide
the best possible results.
Acknowledgements
Our special thanks to Prof. Albert Newen for numerous
thoughtful discussions. This paper was supported by the
following projects: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
(German Research Foundation) - GRK-2185/1 (DFG
Research Training Group Situated Cognition) and NE
576/14-1 (DFG project The Structure and Development of
Understanding Actions and Reasons”).
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