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).


Apperly, I. A. (2008). Beyond Simulation-theory and Theory-theory: why social cog­nit­ive neur­os­cience should use its own con­cepts to study “the­ory of mind.” Cognition, 107(1), 266–283.

Apperly, I. A. (2009). Alternative routes to perspective-taking: Imagination and rule-use may be bet­ter than sim­u­la­tion and the­or­ising. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27(3), 545–553.

Apperly, I. A., Riggs, K. J., Simpson, A., Chiavarino, C., & Samson, D. (2006). Is belief reas­on­ing auto­mat­ic? Psychological Science, 17(10), 841–844.–9280.2006.01791.x

Back, E., & Apperly, I. A. (2010). Two sources of evid­ence on the non-automaticity of true and false belief ascrip­tion. Cognition, 115(1), 54–70.

Baillargeon, R., Scott, R. M., & He, Z. (2010). False-belief under­stand­ing in infants. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(3), 110–118.

Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the aut­ist­ic child have a “Theory of Mind”? Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.

Bartsch, K., & Wellman, H. M. (1995). Children Talk About the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Biro, S., Verschoor, S., & Coenen, L. (2011). Evidence for a unit­ary goal concept in 12-month-old infants. Developmental Science, 14(6), 1255–1260.

Butler, S. C., Caron, A. J., & Brooks, R. (2000). Infant under­stand­ing of the ref­er­en­tial nature of look­ing. Journal of Cognition and Development, 1(4), 359–377.

Carey, S., & Spelke, E. S. (1996). Science and core know­ledge. Philosophy of Science, 63(4), 515–533.

Caron, A. J., Kiel, E. J., Dayton, M., & Butler, S. C. (2002). Comprehension of the ref­er­en­tial intent of look­ing and point­ing between 12 and 15 months. Journal of Cognition and Development, 3(4), 445–464.

Clements, W. A., & Perner, J. (1994). Implicit under­stand­ing of belief. Cognitive Development, 9(4), 377–395.

Cohen, A. S., & German, T. C. (2009). Encoding of oth­ers’ beliefs without overt instruc­tion. Cognition, 111(3), 356–363.

Cooper, R. P., Cook, R., Dickinson, A., & Heyes, C. M. (2013). Associative (not Hebbian) learn­ing and the mir­ror neur­on sys­tem. Neuroscience Letters, 540, 28–36.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive adapt­a­tions for social exchange. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby, The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (pp. 163–228). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Deligianni, F., Senju, A., Gergely, G., & Csibra, G. (2011). Automated gaze-contingent objects eli­cit ori­ent­a­tion fol­low­ing in 8‑month-old infants. Developmental Psychology, 47(6), 1499–1503.

Dennett, D. C. (1987). The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Fenici, M. (subm.). How chil­dren approach the false belief test: Social devel­op­ment, prag­mat­ics, and the assembly of Theory of Mind. Cognition.

Fenici, M. (in press). What is the role of exper­i­ence in children’s suc­cess in the false belief test: mat­ur­a­tion, facil­it­a­tion, attun­e­ment, or induc­tion? Mind & Language.

Fenici, M. (2012). Embodied social cog­ni­tion and embed­ded the­ory of mind. Biolinguistics, 6(3–4), 276–307.

Fenici, M. (2013). Social cog­nit­ive abil­it­ies in infancy: is mindread­ing the best explan­a­tion? Philosophical Psychology.

Fenici, M. (2014). A simple explan­a­tion of appar­ent early mindread­ing: infants’ sens­it­iv­ity to goals and gaze dir­ec­tion. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 14, 1–19.‑9345‑3

Fenici, M., & Carpendale, J. I. M. (in prep.). Solving the false belief test puzzle: A con­struct­iv­ist approach to the devel­op­ment of social understanding.

Fenici, M., & Zawidzki, T. W. (in press). Do infant inter­pret­ers attrib­ute endur­ing men­tal states or track rela­tion­al prop­er­ties of tran­si­ent bouts of beha­vi­or? Studia Philosophica Estonica, 9(2).

Fodor, J. A. (1987). Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Garnham, W. A., & Ruffman, T. (2001). Doesn’t see, doesn’t know: is anti­cip­at­ory look­ing really related to under­stand­ing or belief? Developmental Science, 4(1), 94–100.

Gopnik, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (1996). Words, Thoughts, and Theories. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Happé, F. G. E. (1995). The role of age and verbal abil­ity in the the­ory of mind task per­form­ance of sub­jects with aut­ism. Child Development, 66(3), 843–855.

Humphrey, N. K. (1976). The social func­tion of intel­lect. In P. P. G. Bateson & J. R. Hinde (Eds.), Growing Points in Ethology (pp. 303–317). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hutto, D. D., Herschbach, M., & Southgate, V. (2011). Social cog­ni­tion: mindread­ing and altern­at­ives. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 2(3), 375–395.‑0073‑0

Iacoboni, M. (2003). Understanding inten­tions through imit­a­tion. In S. H. Johnson-Frey (Ed.), Taking Action: Cognitive Neuroscience Perspectives on Intentional Acts (pp. 107–138). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Johnson, S. C., Ok, S., & Luo, Y. (2007). The attri­bu­tion of atten­tion: 9‑month-olds’ inter­pret­a­tion of gaze as goal-directed action. Develop­ment­al Science, 10(5), 530–537.–7687.2007.00606.x

Krebs, J. R., & Dawkins, R. (1984). Animal sig­nals: mind-reading and manip­u­la­tion. Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach, 2, 380–402.

Luo, Y. (2010). Do 8‑month-old infants con­sider situ­ation­al con­straints when inter­pret­ing oth­ers’ gaze as goal-directed action? Infancy, 15(4), 392–419.

Mazzone, M. (2015). Being nat­iv­ist about mind read­ing: More demand­ing than you might think. In Proceedings of the EuroAsianPacific Joint Conference on Cognitive Science (EAPCogSci 2015) (Vol. 1419, pp. 288–293).

Rakoczy, H. (2012). Do infants have a the­ory of mind? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30(1), 59–74.–835X.2011.02061.x

Ruffman, T. (2014). To belief or not belief: Children’s the­ory of mind. Developmental Review, 34(3), 265–293.

Ruffman, T., Taumoepeau, M., & Perkins, C. (2012). Statistical learn­ing as a basis for social under­stand­ing in chil­dren. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30(1), 87–104.

Senju, A. (2012). Spontaneous the­ory of mind and its absence in aut­ism spec­trum dis­orders. The Neuroscientist: A Review Journal Bringing Neurobiology, Neurology and Psychiatry, 18(2), 108–113.

Senju, A., Csibra, G., & Johnson, M. H. (2008). Understanding the ref­er­en­tial nature of look­ing: Infants’ pref­er­ence for object-directed gaze. Cognition, 108(2), 303–319.

Senju, A., Southgate, V., Miura, Y., Matsui, T., Hasegawa, T., Tojo, Y., … Csibra, G. (2010). Absence of spon­tan­eous action anti­cip­a­tion by false belief attri­bu­tion in chil­dren with aut­ism spec­trum dis­order. Development and Psychopathology, 22(02), 353–360.

Sodian, B., Thoermer, C., & Metz, U. (2007). Now I see it but you don’t: 14-month-olds can rep­res­ent anoth­er person’s visu­al per­spect­ive. Developmental Science, 10(2), 199–204.

Sommerville, J. A., & Woodward, A. L. (2005). Pulling out the inten­tion­al struc­ture of action: the rela­tion between action pro­cessing and action pro­duc­tion in infancy. Cognition, 95(1), 1–30.

Surtees, A. D. R., Butterfill, S. A., & Apperly, I. A. (2011). Direct and indir­ect meas­ures of level-2 perspective-taking in chil­dren and adults. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30, 75–86.

Thoermer, C., Sodian, B., Vuori, M., Perst, H., & Kristen, S. (2012). Continuity from an impli­cit to an expli­cit under­stand­ing of false belief from infancy to preschool age. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30(1), 172–187.–835X.2011.02067.x

Wellman, H. M., Cross, D., & Watson, J. (2001). Meta-analysis of theory-of-mind devel­op­ment: the truth about false belief. Child Devel­op­ment, 72(3), 655–684.

Wilson, M., & Knoblich, G. (2005). The case for motor involve­ment in per­ceiv­ing con­spe­cif­ics. Psychological Bulletin, 131(3), 460–473.

Wimmer, H., & Perner, J. (1983). Beliefs about beliefs: rep­res­ent­a­tion and con­strain­ing func­tion of wrong beliefs in young children’s under­stand­ing of decep­tion. Cognition, 13(1), 103–128.

Wolpert, D. M., Doya, K., & Kawato, M. (2003). A uni­fy­ing com­pu­ta­tion­al frame­work for motor con­trol and social inter­ac­tion. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 358(1431), 593–602.

Woodward, A. L., & Sommerville, J. A. (2000). Twelve-month-old infants inter­pret action in con­text. Psychological Science, 11(1), 73–77.