Theory of Mind Across Cultures

People have an exceptional capacity to infer the beliefs, emotions, intentions, and desires of one another. This capacity is known as ‘theory of mind’ and is thought to provide the foundations of human social learning, empathy, cooperation, and communication. Despite the importance of theory of mind, there remains major disagreement over its cognitive basis.

Most contemporary theories acknowledge that both biology and cultural factors can affect our capacity for theory of mind. Differences remain over the relative importance placed on biological and cultural factors and how these factors shape theory of mind.

Some theories argue that mental state concepts are part of a set of folk psychological concepts that are largely genetically determined. These theories predict minimal cross-cultural difference in theory of mind and often treat culture as simply a moderating variable or source of noise.

Recent theories have challenged this assumption by arguing that cultural processes, such as social transmission and processes of cultural evolution, also have the potential to explain how people acquire mental state concepts. These theories treat culture as an important factor in in its own right and predict greater cross-cultural variation in the structure and use of theory of mind.

I have ongoing research projects investigating the structure and variation in mental state concepts across cultures. This research uses new quantitative research methods for linguistic and computer science to investigate the semantic structure and use of mental state vocabulary across languages. Much of this research is in currently in development, and this page will be updated with progress.

Research Outputs

Jackson, J. C., Watts, J., Henry, T. R., List, J., Forkel, R., Greenhill, S., Lindquist, K. (Submitted). Emotion Varies in Semantic Structure Across Language Families.

Low, J., & Watts, J. (2013). Attributing false-beliefs about object identity is a signature blindspot in humans' efficient mind-reading system. Psychological Science, 24(3), 305-311.

External Links

Dr Jason Low, Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Simon Greenhill, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Joshua C. Jackson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Dr Kristen Lindquist, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill