The Social Cover View: a Non-epistemic Approach to Mindreading

Abstract

Mindreading capacity has been widely understood as the human ability to gain knowledge about the inner processes and states of others that bring about the behavior of these agents. This paper argues against this epistemic view of mindreading on the basis of different empirical studies in linguistics and social and developmental psychology: we are systematically biased in attributing mental states, and many everyday uses of mental ascription sentences do not reflect an epistemic function in our social interactions. We introduce an alternative view of mental ascriptions, the social cover view, which is consistent with the evidence. The social cover view holds that the main function of mental ascriptions is to cover the social status and reputation of an agent rather than to gain knowledge about her inner processes and states. Finally, we discuss two possible objections to our proposal.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    To our knowledge, the label “social cover” in the way we use it here was coined by Norman (2016). This label refers to the idea that reasoning mechanisms are used for projecting a positive social image rather than for epistemic purposes. Given that our proposal can be seen as an application of the same idea to mental states attributions, we have decided to keep this label.

  2. 2.

    Traditionally, there are two groups of theories regarding mindreading. According to the theory-theory, mental state attributions are the result of implicit theorization based on a systematic corpus of general laws specifying the connection between perceptual inputs, internal states and behavioral outputs (Baron-Cohen 1995; Gopnik and Meltzoff 1997; Gopnik & Wellman 1994). According to the simulation-theory, the mindreading process is carried out by different simulation mechanisms based on introspections or off-line sub-personal mechanisms (Goldman 1989; Gordon 19965; Heal, 1998) that exploit the access to our own mental states to project what others would do in a given situation. In later developments, several authors have tried to develop certain hybrid versions involving some combination of the processes. In fact, nowadays there is a common consensus about the existence of both types of mechanisms (Carruthers 2006; Goldman 2006; Nichols & Stich 2003). For the purpose of this paper, we consider both approaches as instances of the epistemic view. Both views presuppose that laypeople tackle social encounters as instances of an epistemic problem.

  3. 3.

    The central claim of this paper is fully compatible with the pluralist views of social cognition, according to which socio-cognitive skills in general, and mindreading in particular, can exhibit different functions (see Andrews 2012; Fiebich and Coltheart 2015). However, different pluralist views can propose different/various specific hypotheses regarding the role of mindreading and social skills. In this respect, we believe that the arguments and evidence presented in this paper are sufficient to claim that the epistemic function is less frequent in everyday interactions than it has been assumed. Furthermore, as the evidence in developmental psychology suggested in section 5 and 6 indicates, we put forward the idea that the social cover function is developmentally prior to other functions (for a similar point see Fernández Castro 2019).

  4. 4.

    Although character traits like aggressiveness and trustworthiness can considered mental states, we follow the standard literature which often distinguish between occurrent mental states (e.g., beliefs, desires, intentions) and other attributions (e.g., traits, stereotypes). However, it is an open question whether or not the latter must be considered as part of our mindreading capacities or just an influence (see Spaulding 2018, pp. 24–36; Westra 2017b).

  5. 5.

    See also Hannikainen 2018 (p. 5) for a recent example where participants think they are immune to the effects of the experiment in which they participate.

  6. 6.

    One may recognize a different role for implicit biases in social interpretation while resisting to abandon the epistemic assumption (Spaulding 2016; Westra 2017b). For instance, Spaulding (2016) argues that social situations impose different needs for accuracy and efficiency, forcing agents to rely on shortcomings and heuristics when the situation demands efficiency, and rely on more reflexive and deliberative processes when accuracy is required. There are two problems with this view. First, it is not so clear that deliberative and reflexive processes are unbiased (Wittenbrink et al. 2001), which would cast into question even a more restricted version of the epistemic view, where accuracy is only needed in some situations. Second, some important evidence supports the idea that stereotypes and implicit bias are not as inaccurate as it is often assumed (see Jussim 2012 for a review), reinforcing the idea that the efficiency of our anticipatory and interpretative capacities may rely on different processes such as stereotypes and character traits, rather than mindreading (Andrews 2012, 2015; Hirschfeld 2013; Kalish 2012; Maibom 2007; Zawidzki 2013; section 4). Of course, taking into consideration this evidence goes beyond the scope of this paper. For our purpose, it is enough to notice that our mindreading capacities are prone to error in a way that accuracy is far from being secured.

  7. 7.

    Philosophical literature regarding action often distinguishes between intentional actions and mere happenings or passive behavior (see Wilson and Shpall 2016 for a review). For the purpose of our paper, we do not focus on such distinction; instead, we focus on those actions and behavior that the agent is accountable for. In this sense, we use the terms intentional actions and behavior interchangeably.

  8. 8.

    Although Malle and his colleagues claim that reasons explanation and reasons explanation involving mental vocabulary are mostly the same (they involve psychological causes of the action), there is an important tradition in philosophy that denies that reason explanations are implicit psychological causes. According to these authors, reasons must be construed as facts or propositions that motivate the action (Alvarez 2010; Scanlon 1998). See below.

  9. 9.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for bring our attention to this.

  10. 10.

    It may be objected that, while it is obvious that mental state verbs are being used here, it is unclear that this use says anything about mental states concepts. However, it should be noted that the motivation for the mindreading research in psychology and philosophy was to offer an explanation of how human beings use mental attributions, and therefore how we use them in our linguistic exchanges (see for instance, Perner 1991, pp. 1–11; Stone and Davies 1996, pp. 119–120). If much of the mental vocabulary that we use is not meant to talk about the internal processes of agents, perhaps this is not what we mostly do by attributing mental states. To think that these uses of mental vocabulary do not really refer to mental concepts is to excessively restrict the ‘pure’ phenomenon of mental attributions, which in turn supports our idea that it is not the main function of what we do when we talk about people’s beliefs, desires and other mental states.

  11. 11.

    For a similar point regarding German and Dutch see Nuyts (2001, pp. 107-167); for the case of French see Schneider and And Glikman (2015).

  12. 12.

    Non-factive verbs are verbs used to show that the speaker is not completely committed to the truth of the proposition expressed in the that-clause.

  13. 13.

    We do not rule out the possibility that there are other related functions. Most importantly, we are not negating that we often speculate about the other inner states with our ascriptions. However, we take these functions to be central and more fundamental.

  14. 14.

    In this task, a child is exposed to a scenario where a character, Maxi, puts chocolate into a cupboard x. When Maxi is not present, his mother moves the chocolate from x into a cupboard y. In the standard task (Wimmer and Perner 1983), children have to indicate the box where Maxi will look for the chocolate when he returns. Only when the child is able to represent Maxi’s wrong belief, is he able to point correctly to box x.

  15. 15.

    Some of the studies involving implicit mindreading have recently failed to replicate (e.g., Kulke et al. 2018). Thus, the debate about how to interpret these tasks may therefore turn out to be futile. However, given the importance of the literature discussing these findings in the last ten years and waiting for more conclusive evidence, we believe the objection is still worth discussing.

  16. 16.

    Westra also targets the 2-systems views (Apperly 2011; Bohl and Bos 2012; Butterfill and Apperly 2013; Wellman 2014), according to which the two types of FB-tasks (implicit and explicit) reflect two systems of mindreading. One inflexible, fast implicit system and one slow, explicit verbally mediated system.

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Acknowledgements

We are thankful to Agustín Vicente and Andreas Falck for reading previous drafts of this paper and for their valuablecomments and suggestions. We are grateful as well for the unconditional philosophical and emotional support to the members of theGranada Gang.

Funding

This paper has been funded thanks to the FPI Predoctoral Fellow “BES-2017- 079933”, the Projects FFI2015-65953-P and FFI2016-80088-P funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy, the project ANR-16-CE33-0017 funded by The French National Research Agency and the FiloLab Group of Excellence funded by the Universidad de Granada.

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Correspondence to Víctor Fernandez Castro.

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Almagro Holgado, M., Fernandez Castro, V. The Social Cover View: a Non-epistemic Approach to Mindreading. Philosophia 48, 483–505 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-019-00096-2

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Keywords

  • Mindreading
  • Folk psychology
  • Social cover
  • Justification