How We Understand Others

Today’s post was written by Shannon Spaulding, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma State University. Her general philosophical interests are in the philosophy of mind, philosophical psychology, and the philosophy of science. 

The principal goal of her research is to construct a philosophically and empirically plausible account of social cognition. She also has research interests in imagination, pretense, and action theory. Here she introduces her new book, “How We Understand Others: Philosophy and Social Cognition”.




A question that has long interested me is how we understand others – that is, what are the cognitive processes that underlie successful social understanding and interaction – and what happens when we misunderstand others. In philosophy and the cognitive sciences, the orthodox view is that understanding and interacting with others is partly underwritten by mindreading, the capacity to make sense of intentional behavior in terms of mental states. 

On this view, successful social interaction often involves understanding what others are thinking and what they are trying to achieve. In our ordinary social interactions, we attribute beliefs, desires, emotions, and intentions to people to make sense of their behavior, and on the basis of that we predict what they are likely to do next. 
In this book, I argue that mindreading is an important tool in our folk psychological toolkit. But, I argue, mindreading is not as simple, uniform, or accurate as the orthodox view portrays it to be. The philosophical literature on mindreading suggests that neurotypical adult humans rarely make mindreading mistakes, that competent mindreaders all pretty much agree on the mentalistic explanations and predictions we infer, and all there really is to mindreading is attributing a belief, desire, or intention and explaining and predicting behavior. 

I challenge each of these ideas. I argue that individuals differ with respect to informational input to mindreading, their goals in mindreading, the kind of mindreading strategies they adopt, and the kind of mindreading output they produce. My claim is not simply that individuals use their mindreading judgments differently. That much is uncontroversial. 

Rather, my claim is that the input, processing, and output of mindreading all vary along many dimensions, which makes constructing an empirically adequate account of mindreading significantly more challenging than typically recognized. The overarching theme of the book is that mindreading is much more complex, messy, interesting, and relevant to other debates than philosophers have acknowledged. 
There are two particularly important dimensions of complexity for mindreading: the input and output of mindreading. Philosophical accounts of mindreading for the most part do not discuss the input into mindreading mechanisms. Discussions of mindreading rarely concern how social categorization (rapidly, spontaneously classifying individuals by their age, race, gender, and other categories), stereotypes, social biases, and situational context influence how we interpret social behavior. 

These aspects of social interaction filter the available information that serves as input to mindreading and thus directly influence the mental representations mindreaders end up attributing. Thus, realistic and accurate accounts of mindreading must explain how these aspects of social interaction shape both the input and output of mindreading judgments. 
Most contemporary mindreading theories presuppose that our primary goal in mindreading is to attribute beliefs in order to accurately explain behavior. Although this is the case in certain conditions, this presupposition is wrongheaded in two ways. First, mindreading is not limited to belief-based explanations. Existing mindreading theories often narrowly focus on how we attribute beliefs to others. 

Although there is good reason to think that belief attribution is a significant cognitive achievement, and there’s an interesting history of how belief attribution came to dominate philosophical discussion of social cognition, the result of this fixation on belief is that philosophical discussions neglect other important aspects of social interaction, such as attributing various kinds of mental states in order to influence others (mindshaping), to enforce social and moral norms (regulative folk psychology), to confirm our worldview, protect in-group members, and, in cases of competition or threat, vilify an outgroup member. 


Furthermore, in many contexts accuracy is not our primary goal. We may have different primary goals, such as efficiency, confirming our preexisting ideas, validating our self-worth, manipulating others, etc. These different goals bring about various strategies for mindreading and generate different types of explanations of social behavior, which are relatively unexplored by current theories of mindreading. I discuss how our goals influence stereotype activation, the mindreading approaches we employ in social interactions, how differently we approach mindreading in-group and out-group members, and how reliable these various strategies are.
I evaluate existing theories of mindreading in light of the evidence of mindreading diversity. Although the main theories – hybrid versions of Theory Theory and Simulation Theory – are good insofar as they go, I argue that they are incomplete. We need a comprehensive theory of mindreading that also encompasses the broader set of phenomena I canvass in earlier chapters. I articulate and defend Model Theory, which has the potential to be the kind of comprehensive, unifying theory of mindreading that we need. 

Briefly, Model Theory holds that we deploy folk psychological models of other agents in order understand, predict, manipulate, or interact with them. These models can be fairly schematic or quite detailed, depending on who the target is and our goals in the interaction, and we can deploy these models for various purposes, e.g., making accurate predictions when a lot hangs on getting it right, categorizing behavior in terms of familiar social norms or stereotypes, moralizing, manipulating, etc. 
Most philosophical discussions of mindreading are pretty isolated from other areas of philosophy, such as ethics and epistemology. I think this is a mistake because understanding how we interpret and interact with others is important for other areas of philosophy, as well. I consider debates in social epistemology, feminist philosophy, and ethics that concern judging others as knowledgeable and competent with respect to some issue. 

These judgments clearly involve mindreading, and the updated theory of mindreading I articulate in the previous chapter can help shed light on how these judgments occur, when and how they are biased, and when not to trust these judgments. This discussion is important for understanding our judgments of who is an epistemic peer, analyzing disagreements amongst people we judge to be epistemic peers, epistemic injustice, and theorizing about interventions to prevent epistemic injustice.


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