Both mindreading and stereotyping are forms of social cognition that play a pervasive role in our everyday lives, yet too little attention has been paid to the question of how these two processes are related. This paper offers a theory of the influence of stereotyping on mental-state attribution that draws on hierarchical predictive coding accounts of action prediction. It is argued that the key to understanding the relation between stereotyping and mindreading lies in the fact that stereotypes centrally involve character-trait attributions, which play a systematic role in the action–prediction hierarchy. On this view, when we apply a stereotype to an individual, we rapidly attribute to her a cluster of generic character traits on the basis of her perceived social group membership. These traits are then used to make inferences about that individual’s likely beliefs and desires, which in turn inform inferences about her behavior.
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One could come up with other, non-mentalistic interpretations of this result. For example, children might simply be relying on associations between race and moral transgression. But given what we know about children’s ability to represent intentions, and their ability to use this information in moral judgments, these alternative interpretations seem rather implausible. Further research would be necessary to rule them out completely, however.
Social psychologists and neuroscientists distinguish stereotypes from ‘prejudice’: while the former is a semantic structure, and encodes descriptive properties of groups, the latter is an evaluative structure, and encodes valenced information. Prejudice and stereotypes are known to dissociate on a number of behavioral and neural measures (Amodio and Devine 2006; Gilbert et al. 2012). In this paper, I am specifically focused on stereotypes, and leave prejudice to one side.
Note that these are properties that we tend to ascribe to character traits in our folk psychology. We may think of character traits this way even if the reality is quite different, as proponents of situationism about character have argued (Doris 2002). Also, the notion of character here is not meant to be a specifically moral, evaluative construct, and should be read as roughly synonymous with ‘personality.’
The warmth and competence dimensions are statistical posits that aim to explain recurring correlations between particular trait attributions (e.g. people who are judged as trustworthy also tend to be judged as friendly, kind, and gentle, and people who are viewed as intelligent also tend to be viewed as confident and serious). These two clusters of correlated traits appear throughout the trait-attribution literature, and have been given many labels besides warmth and competence: warm and cold (Asch 1946), social and intellectual (Rosenberg et al. 1968), self-profitable and other-profitable (Peeters 1983), morality and competence (Wojciszke 1994), and trustworthiness and dominance (Todorov et al. 2008).
Most measures of social essentialism involve posing questions that probe beliefs about various components of essentialism for a given social group. For example, Haslam et al. (2000) provided adults with questionnaires that included items about the naturalness, inherence, and immutability of various social categories, including age, ethnicity, religion sexual orientation, etc. For instance, the inherence item used the following prompt: “Some categories have an underlying reality; although their members have similarities and differences on the surface, underneath they are basically the same. Other categories also have similarities and differences on the surface, but do not correspond to an underlying reality (Haslam et al. 2000, p. 118).” Participants then rated social categories on a scale of ‘underlying reality or sameness.’ Another measure of essentialism often used with children is the adoption task, which asks children to imagine an individual from social category A being adopted at birth by a family from social category B, and then asking the child whether the individual will grow up to display more A-traits or B-traits (Gelman and Wellman 1991; Hirschfeld and Gelman 1997; Segall et al. 2015).
Andrews (2012) account of the relation between stereotyping and mental-state attribution is not entirely clear. Initially, she presents her account of stereotyping as one of many ways in which, ‘entire classes of behavior can be predicted, and even prognosticated, without the attribution of beliefs and desires [emphasis added]’ (p. 68). But elsewhere, she seems more open to a role for mental-state attributions in stereotype-based behavioral predictions: for instance, she writes, ‘when we stereotype others, we form expectations about people’s behaviors and their beliefs based on their group membership [emphasis added]’ (p. 86). One way to make sense of this tension would be if Andrews were distinguishing between mental-state attributions that occur via discrete acts of theorizing or simulation, and mental-state attributions that occur as the result of prior associations. That is, if we automatically apply a stereotype to a target, and that stereotype is associated with certain beliefs, we may incidentally come to attribute that belief to the target as well, without ever specifically reasoning about what their beliefs are. If this interpretation is correct, then my own account can be read as an argument for why the relation between mental-state attributions is not incidental at all, but rather quite systematic.
Although there are good reasons for thinking that the structure of stereotypes is not based solely on statistical associations (Hammond and Cimpian 2017; del Pinal and Spaulding in press).
For a more detailed critique of folk psychological pluralism, see Westra (2017).
Because my account of mindreading and stereotyping is informal, it is likely to be consistent with a number of other computational approaches that treat cognition as a form of Bayesian inference, besides HPC (e.g. Gopnik and Wellman 2012; Lochmann and Deneve 2011; Solway and Botvinick 2012; Tenenbaum et al. 2011). The key features of any such model, as far as my account is concerned, would be (1) the hierarchical organization of mental-state inferences, where increasing levels in the hierarchy correspond to generative models producing hypotheses about properties of increasing temporal stability and abstractness, and (2) construing attention in terms of higher-order expectations about the precision of lower-order predictions (Hohwy 2012). My use of HPC reflects the fact that it incorporates these two features, and has also made important inroads into the mindreading literature [especially with respect to goal-based action prediction in the mirror neuron system (Kilner et al. 2007)]. It does not entail a commitment to some of HPC’s more controversial elements, such as the free-energy formulation of prediction-error minimization (Friston and Kiebel 2009), or the idea that feed-forward neural signals contain only information about prediction errors (Spratling 2013).
This model does not require that the agent literally represent the entire space of possible mentalistic hypotheses for a given behavior, nor assign a prior probability to each of these. Rather, the agent’s subjective prior probabilities could be interpreted as their propensity to sample from a hypothesis-generating mechanism, whose representational capabilities constitute the (latent) hypothesis space (Icard 2016; Perfors et al. 2011).
This account of the role of character-trait attributions in mindreading is based on a view developed in Westra (2017).
Granted, we do hold on to some of our beliefs and desires for long periods of time. But this has nothing to do with the nature of beliefs and desires as such, and everything to do with independent facts about the world. If I persist in believing that Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States, or that all bachelors are unmarried, it is because facts about the world (and the meaning of ‘bachelor’) make these beliefs true. Likewise, I may have standing desires for world peace and to win the lottery; what makes these desires persist is that my winning the lottery and world peace are unlikely to happen, and so my desires are destined to go unfulfilled. This is not so for the stability of character traits.
Also, note that the beliefs and desires that we are often least likely to give up, such as deeply held moral convictions and values, are precisely those that we treat as part of our core identities, as essential to who we are (Strohminger and Nichols 2014). They are, in other words, much more trait-like than our other attitudes.
There is, of course, a huge debate about when certain theory-of-mind abilities (especially belief-attribution) develop (Baillargeon et al. 2010; Heyes 2014; Scholl and Leslie 2001; Wellman et al. 2001). But whether one believes that the core elements of theory of mind develop rapidly in the first year of life (Carruthers 2013), or more slowly over the first 5 years (Wellman 2014), there is still a general consensus that children possess a wide range of theory-of-mind abilities by at least four-and-a-half (Wellman et al. 2001), and display other relevant abilities quite a bit earlier (Behne et al. 2005; Moll and Tomasello 2006; Repacholi and Gopnik 1997; Wellman and Liu 2004).
In an HPC framework, estimations of expected utility would need to rely upon affect-based, interoceptive predictions about the somatic and hedonic consequences of a prospective scenario (Barrett 2017; but see Carruthers (2017) for a non-hedonist account of the function of valence in prospection). Contemplating walking down a dark alleyway in a bad neighborhood, for example, may yield a prediction about the likelihood of a threatening encounter, which would in turn trigger an affective response—namely, a preparation for fight or flight. This affective prediction could in turn support decision-making (Seligman et al. 2013), but also one’s subsequent sensitivity to prediction errors via the allocation of attentional resources.
Note also that this construal of affect would also necessarily figure in any HPC account of prejudice (see footnote 2).
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Thanks to Peter Carruthers, John Michael, Julius Schönherr, Moonyoung Song, Shannon Spaulding, and Adam Westra for their comments on drafts of this paper.
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Westra, E. Stereotypes, theory of mind, and the action–prediction hierarchy. Synthese 196, 2821–2846 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1575-9