Culture & Learning in Theory of Mind

Terror, from Darwin's Expression of Emotions in Man

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. However, 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.

Starting in June 2020 I will be leading a project titled “Cross-cultural Patterns in Theory of Mind: Using text analytics to identify structure and variation in mental state attributions in the Pacific”. This project is funded by a grant from the Marsden fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand and is in collaboration with Dr Simon Greenhill and Dr Jason Low. Our research will use new quantitative research methods from linguistics and computer science to investigate the semantic structure of mental state vocabulary across Pacific languages. I also have ongoing research collaborations with Joshua Jackson and Dr Kristen Lindquist investigating the semantics of emotions across world language families.

Research Outputs

Jackson, J.C., Watts, J., Henry, T.R., List, J.M., Forkel, R., Mucha, P.J., Greenhill, S.J., Gray, R.D., & Lindquist, K.A. (2019). Emotion semantics show both cultural variation and universal structure. Science, 366(6472), 1517-1522.

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