Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Alexithymic Mentalising: Theory of Mind and Social Adaptation

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Alexithymic Mentalising: Theory of Mind and Social Adaptation

Article excerpt

Alexithymic individuals are unable to enter into empathic intimate relationships and yet are capable of socially appropriate behavior outside of intimate relationships. The construct of theory of mind is outlined and used to explore a possible mechanism to account for social adaptiveness in alexithymia. This study tested the mentalising ability of subjects high on alexithymia. Alexithymic subjects' performance was no different from that of subjects drawn unsystematically from the same population. Alexithymic subjects were able to correctly complete the false belief task, indicating that, from a prediction point of view, the deficits in interpersonal processing were not in the area of belief estimation. The use of tacit social knowledge in a Theory Theory of Mind process is proposed as a means by which alexithymic individuals guide their social behavior. The implications of this result are discussed with respect to the measurement of mentalising ability.

Alexithymia literally means an absence of words for emotion. Taylor (1984) noted that alexithymic individuals "show a striking difficulty in recognising and describing their own feelings, and they have difficulty discriminating between emotional states and bodily states" (p. 726). High-alexithymic individuals find empathy difficult and have a restricted or significantly reduced imaginative capacity. Taylor, Ryan, and Bagby (1997) state that there are four salient features of alexithymic individuals; "(i) difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and bodily sensations of emotional arousal; (ii) difficulty describing feelings to other people; (iii) constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a paucity of fantasies; and (iv) a stimulus-bound, externally orientated cognitive style" (p. 29). Taylor et al. found that "lacking knowledge of their own emotional experience, alexithymic individuals cannot readily imagine themselves in another person's situation and are consequently unempathic and ineffective in modulating the emotional states of others" (p.30). Theory of Mind research investigates the ability of individuals to understand and interpret the mind of another person and would thus seem to be a potentially useful concept for exploring alexithymia.


The Theory Theory of Mind (Such & Nichols 1995), contends that an observing individual predicts the beliefs or actions of a target individual by taking note of the situations facing the target individual and applying a tacit theory of human mentation to make a prediction about the beliefs or actions of the target person. The Simulation Theory of Mind model (Goldie, 1999; Goldman, 1995; Gordon, 1995; Heal, 1996) on the other hand asserts that an observer predicts the mind of a target individual by placing himself or herself in the position of the target person and simulating the experience they observe. From this simulation process the observing individual generates an account of the actions or beliefs of the target individual.


Goldman (1995) asserts that empathy, in a broad sense, is critical to the simulationist Theory of Mind position. He describes empathy as a "naive heuristic for interpreting, explaining and predicting others." (p.188). The process is one of imaginatively projecting oneself into the situation of the target and then utilising one's own mental processes as a method of modeling the experience of the target individual and so predicting their beliefs and actions. The individual high on alexithymic traits will presumably find this process very difficult. From a Simulationist TOM perspective the alexithymic individual would use a set of predetermined interaction scripts when attempting to predict the beliefs and actions of others. These scripts would be termed tacit knowledge structures in a Theory TOM account.

The alexithymic person is said to be "stimulus-bound" with an "externally orientated cognitive style" (Taylor et al. …

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