Resisting nativism about mindreading

Marco Fenici–Independent research­er

My flat­mate, Sam, returns home from cam­pus, and tells me he is thirsty. We always have beer in the fridge, and I know he likes it, but I have already drunk the last one. What will Sam do? I pre­dict that he will go to the kit­chen look­ing for beer. At least, this is what I should do if I con­sider his reas­on­able (but incor­rect) belief that there is beer in the fridge.

As philo­soph­ers often put it, such situ­ations rely on mindread­ing—our capa­city to attrib­ute men­tal states such as beliefs, desires, and inten­tions to oth­ers. Indeed, this capa­city is often deemed vital for the pre­dic­tion and explan­a­tion of oth­ers’ beha­viour in a wide vari­ety of situ­ations (Dennett, 1987; Fodor, 1987); a view that has influ­enced much empir­ic­al research. Extended invest­ig­a­tion of children’s capa­city to pre­dict oth­ers’ actions using elicited-response false belief tasks (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985; Wimmer & Perner, 1983), which appar­ently require chil­dren to per­form infer­en­tial reas­on­ing of the above kind, was, until recently, widely taken to show that it is not until age four or more that chil­dren cor­rectly under­stand oth­ers’ to have false beliefs (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001).

These find­ings led to a large debate between, so-called, sim­u­la­tion the­or­ists and the­ory the­or­ists, but this debate has proven largely ortho­gon­al to the con­cerns of psy­cho­lo­gists (see Apperly, 2008, 2009 for dis­cus­sion). Thus, I will not dis­cuss it fur­ther in the present treat­ment. Instead, I will focus on a fur­ther con­tro­versy raised by the above find­ings: namely, the ques­tion of how infants/children acquire the socio-cognitive abil­it­ies. According to the child-as-scientist view (Bartsch & Wellman, 1995; Carey & Spelke, 1996; Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1996), chil­dren acquire a Theory of Mind (ToM) by form­ing, test­ing and revis­ing hypo­theses about the rela­tions between men­tal states and observed beha­viour. In con­trast, pro­ponents of mod­u­lar­ism about mindread­ing (Baron-Cohen, 1995) con­tend that chil­dren have an innately endowed ToM provided by a domain-specific cog­nit­ive mod­ule, which has developed as our spe­cies evolved (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992; Humphrey, 1976; Krebs & Dawkins, 1984).

In the last years, the nat­iv­ist view has been gain­ing increas­ing con­sensus after the find­ing that infants look longer—indicating their surprise—when they see an act­or act­ing against a (false) belief that it would be ration­al to attrib­ute to her (see Baillargeon, Scott, & He, 2010 for a review). These res­ults are taken to indic­ate that infants can attrib­ute true and false beliefs to oth­er agents, and expect them to act coher­ently with these attrib­uted men­tal states. Because of the very young age of the infants assessed, it has been claimed that, since birth, they must pos­sess a pre­dis­pos­i­tion to identi­fy oth­ers’ men­tal states thereby imply­ing a nativ­ism about mindreading.

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

Moreover, the nat­iv­ist inter­pret­a­tion of infants’ look­ing beha­viour in spontaneous-response false belief tasks mani­fests an “adulto­centric” bias. Indeed, what seems to us a full-fledged abil­ity to inter­pret oth­ers’ actions by attrib­ut­ing men­tal states may have an inde­pend­ent explan­a­tion when mani­fes­ted in the look­ing beha­viour of young­er infants. But, as it so hap­pens, there are vari­ous reas­ons to doubt that infants’ social cog­nit­ive capa­cit­ies mani­fes­ted in spontaneous-response false belief tasks are devel­op­ment­ally con­tinu­ous with later belief attri­bu­tion capa­cit­ies such as those appar­ently mani­fes­ted by four-year-olds when suc­ceed­ing in elicited-response false belief tasks (see Fenici, 2013, sec. 4 for full discussion).

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

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

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

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

In detail, exten­ded invest­ig­a­tion has by now demon­strated that, from 5–6‑months on, infants can track the (motor) goals of oth­ers’ actions, such as grasp­ing (Woodward, 1998, 2003). By one year, this capa­city is quite soph­ist­ic­ated (Biro, Verschoor, & Coenen, 2011; Sommerville & Woodward, 2005; Woodward & Sommerville, 2000). These stud­ies demon­strate that infants asso­ci­ate cog­nit­ive agents with the out­come of their actions, and rely on these asso­ci­ations to form expect­a­tions about the agent’s future beha­viour. Although this is nor­mally taken to be equi­val­ent to the idea that infants attrib­ute goals, these capa­cit­ies may depend on neur­al pro­cesses of cov­ert (motor) imit­a­tion (Iacoboni, 2003; Wilson & Knoblich, 2005; Wolpert, Doya, & Kawato, 2003), which become pro­gress­ively attuned to more abstract fea­tures of the observed action due to asso­ci­at­ive learn­ing (Cooper, Cook, Dickinson, & Heyes, 2013; Ruffman, Taumoepeau, & Perkins, 2012).

Computing the stat­ist­ic­al reg­u­lar­it­ies in observed pat­terns of action may lead infants to form expect­a­tions not only about oth­ers’ motor beha­viour but also about their gaze. Indeed, infants find it more dif­fi­cult to track target-directed gaze than target-directed motor beha­viour because the former but not the lat­ter lacks phys­ic­al con­tact between the act­or and the tar­get. They can nev­er­the­less begin form­ing asso­ci­ations between act­ors and the tar­get of their gaze by noti­cing that cog­nit­ive agents reg­u­larly act upon the objects they gaze at. This hypo­thes­is is coher­ent with empir­ic­al data attest­ing that the abil­ity to fol­low oth­ers’ gaze sig­ni­fic­antly improves around the ninth month (Johnson, Ok, & Luo, 2007; Luo, 2010; Senju, Csibra, & Johnson, 2008), and that this capa­city may merely depend on infants’ abil­ity to detect con­tin­gent pat­terns of inter­ac­tion with the gaz­ing agent (Deligianni, Senju, Gergely, & Csibra, 2011).

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

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

In con­clu­sion, des­pite the wide con­sensus that nativ­ism about mindread­ing boasts among philo­soph­ers and devel­op­ment­al psy­cho­lo­gists, the evid­ence actu­ally opposes a con­tinu­ity in the devel­op­ment of social cog­ni­tion from infancy to early child­hood. Therefore, the capa­cit­ies mani­fes­ted in spontaneous-response seem not to be the fore­run­ners of our mature capa­city to attrib­ute men­tal states, and that they could have evolved in oth­er ways (Fenici, in press, subm., 2012; Fenici & Carpendale, in prep.) Future research should explore the pos­sib­il­ity that infants’ alleged mindread­ing capa­cit­ies actu­ally indic­ate some more basic tend­ency to form and update expect­a­tions about oth­ers’ future actions, a capa­city which pro­gress­ively devel­ops over the course of time to reflect a grow­ing appre­ci­ation of which objects oth­ers can and can­not gaze at (Fenici, 2014; Ruffman, 2014).

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