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Quinean social skills: empirical evidence from eye-gaze against information encapsulation

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Abstract

Since social skills are highly significant to the evolutionary success of humans, we should expect these skills to be efficient and reliable. For many Evolutionary Psychologists efficiency entails encapsulation: the only way to get an efficient system is via information encapsulation. But encapsulation reduces reliability in opaque epistemic domains. And the social domain is darkly opaque: people lie and cheat, and deliberately hide their intentions and deceptions. Modest modularity [Currie and Sterelny (2000) Philos Q 50:145–160] attempts to combine efficiency and reliability. Reliability is obtained by placing social skills in un-encapsulated central cognition; efficiency by having the social system sensitive to encapsulated socially tagged cues. In this paper, I argue that this approach fails. I focus on eye-gaze as a plausible example of a socially significant encapsulated cue. I demonstrate contra modest modularity that eye-gaze is subject to influence from central cognition.

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Notes

  1. Following Buller (2005) I will use the term “Evolutionary Psychology” (with the capitals) to refer to the research program typified by such authors as Cosmides, Tooby and Pinker. The classic statement of this research program is Adapted Minds by Barkow et al. (1992) (also see Buss 2004). I use the phrase “evolutionary psychology” (without the capitals) more generally; namely, for the application of evolutionary considerations to psychology.

  2. Part of the fame of SCT is due to the fact that it is one of the few modular theories outside of linguistics to have empirical evidence besides psychopathological data to support it. The Wason (1964, 1966, 1968) selection task appears to provide experimental evidence for a domain-specific social reasoning module. People prefer social presentations of the selection task—which involves reasoning with the ‘if P then Q’ conditional—regardless of familiarity with the social situation (see, for example, Brown and Moore 2000; Frydman et al. 1999; Griggs and Cox 1982). Social presentations are preferred even if the task deals with completely imaginary situations (see Cosmides 1989). This has led Evolutionary Psychologists to claim that inference needs to be modular (see, for example, Fiddick et al. 2000, p. 5). For why the Wason data does not require a modular account of social inference see Parsell (2005).

  3. Interestingly, both Garfield et al. (2001) and Karmiloff-Smith (1992) have made sustained cases for non-innate (or “assembled”) modules in relation to social abilities.

  4. For much more detail on the ambiguous use of “domain-specific” by Evolutionary Psychologists and the consequences this has for arguments for massive modularity see Samuels (1998).

  5. Currie and Sterelny (2000) illustrate the point by examining mate choice. Whether this is considered a single domain or a number of distinct domains (perhaps concerning fidelity, kin relationships, and the like), turns on how many cognitive systems serve the “problem” (Currie and Sterelny 2000, p. 148). Also see Fodor (1983) and Garfield et al. (2001).

  6. For details on problems associated with conceptualizing innateness see Samuels (2002).

  7. On the importance of gaze to social cognition, see Striano and Reid (2006) for a recent review of the empirical literature; Tomasello and Carpenter (2007) for a recent empirical defence of the critical importance of shared intentionality (grounded on gaze following) for the development of social skills; Stawarska (2006) for a philosophical defence of the central importance of mutual gaze to the development of social abilities; and, Senju et al. (2006) for an examination of the underlying neurology and development of the perception of referential gaze.

  8. In response to Baron-Cohen, Garfield et al. (2001) have argued for a modest modular type theory: that although ToM is part of central cognition, and hence Quinean, some of the critical data entering the ToM system comes from lower level encapsulated systems. Both Baron-Cohen and Garfield et al. (2001) rely extensively on psychopathological data that is beyond the scope of the present paper.

  9. Interestingly, once the interpretation of a face had been induced, future attentional shifts could not be suppressed. That is, if the stimulus was first referred to as a face with eyes and then as a car with wheels, automatic reorientation occurred in both conditions. Ristic and Kingstone (2005) argue that sensitive to top-down influence is asymmetrical. Perceiving a stimulus as eyes is sufficient to produce attentional redirection, but future top-down input is ineffective in suppressing reorientation once the stimulus has been perceived as eyes. At first pass, this may seem to be a case of encapsulation being driven by top-down processing. Certainly, once a stimulus is interpreted as a face, processing of the eyes is mandatory. This is consistent with large amounts of evidence suggesting that the encoding of global facial configuration, including eyes, is mandatory (see Vuilleumer et al. 2003 for details). Mandatory processing is often taken to be indicative of module systems. In the present case, the automatic processing, and hence any support it gives for modularity, is restricted to the processing of the face. We see no direct support for encapsulated social tagging of eye cues. Of course, once the face interpretation is mandated, gaze cuing follows. But we have already seen such automatic attentional reorientation due to gaze cuing does not support modest modularity. Thus the mandatory processing of eyes, and the attentional redirection it produces, is no solace for the modest modularist. There is, however, another well supported case of mandatory interpretation that might do the job. Judgements of intentionality are typically mandatory. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that it is not possible to decide not to “see” many clearly non-intentional objects, such as abstract moving shapes, as involving intentional agents (Heider and Simmel 1944). Currie and Sterelny (2000) suggest the evidence is consistent with the modest modularity compromise. We do seem to have socially tagged data being overridden by central cognition: we “see” the things as intentional, but do not view them upon reflection as truly social. While I do not have the space to discuss this in detail, it is worth noting that recent evidence suggests a more complex story than straightforward bottom-up mandating of intentional “perception”. Epley et al. (2007) found intentional explanation depends on three psychological factors: perceived applicability of intentional description to the “agent”, the motivation to understand another’s behaviour and high-level social factor related to the desire for social contact. While the research does not deny the pull of intentional explanation—indeed, it aims to explain why such explanation is so viable—it does suggest it results from a complex interplay of factors, some of which are clearly social. Similarly, Tavares et al. (2008) have demonstrated different brain activation in response to the movement of abstract shapes depending on whether the subject was cued to attend to spatial or social characteristics of the movement. In both cases, evidence suggests influence for higher social levels feeding into the “perception” of intentionality itself, rather than low-level encapsulated mandating of intentional perception.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to audiences members at the University of Queensland and University of Auckland, Macquarie University’s “Mod Squad”, Jay Garfield, John Sutton and Bruce Wilson for helpful comments on these ideas; Cynthia Townley and Jane French for reading the manuscript; and an anonymous referee for some very helpfully comments on an earlier version of this paper.

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Parsell, M. Quinean social skills: empirical evidence from eye-gaze against information encapsulation. Biol Philos 24, 1–19 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-008-9132-z

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