Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

What Do We Know about Implicit False-Belief Tracking?

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

What Do We Know about Implicit False-Belief Tracking?

Article excerpt

Published online: 22 May 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract There is now considerable evidence that neurotypical individuals track the internal cognitions of others, even in the absence of instructions to do so. This finding has prompted the suggestion that humans possess an implicit mental state tracking system (implicit Theory of Mind, ToM) that exists alongside a system that allows the deliberate and explicit analysis of the mental states of others (explicit ToM). Here we evaluate the evidence for this hypothesis and assess the extent to which implicit and explicit ToM operations are distinct. We review evidence showing that adults can indeed engage in ToM processing even without being conscious of doing so. However, at the same time, there is evidence that explicit and implicit ToM operations share some functional features, including drawing on executive resources. Based on the available evidence, we propose that implicit and explicit ToM operations overlap and should only be considered partially distinct.

Keywords Implicit Theory of Mind Explicit Theory of Mind . False-belief tracking . Social cognition . Eye movements . Unconscious cognitive processes

Theory of Mind (ToM) reasoning or mentalizing refers to an individual's ability to infer the mental states of others, including their beliefs, feelings, and intentions (Apperly & Butterfill, 2009; Butterfill & Apperly, 2013; Frith & Frith, 2005; Low & Pemer, 2012). ToM is a complex and dynamic cognitive process that is engaged across a wide range of social activities. Cooperating and communicating with work colleagues, interacting with family and friends, thinking about others in their absence, or simply asking a stranger for help all require ToM. Underscoring the importance of ToM for social functioning are the social-communicative limitations seen in individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or schizophrenia, who typically show impairments, relative to neurotypicals, in ToM reasoning (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985; Brüne, 2005; Frith, 2004a, b; Frith & Hill, 2004; Moran et al., 2011). Further, across the neurotypical human lifespan, ToM abilities have been shown to predict social functioning outcomes (Apperly, Samson, & Humphreys, 2009; Dumontheil, Apperly, & Blakemore, 2010; Henry, Phillips, Ruffman, & Bailey, 2013; Maylor, Moulson, Muncer, & Taylor, 2002; Phillips et al., 2011; Slaughter, Peterson, & Moore, 2013). Currently, there is considerable debate regarding the cognitive architecture underlying ToM. A recent, and particularly provocative claim, is that neurotypical individuals can not only reason about others' beliefs, but also implicitly track them as social events unfold. That is, humans have the ability to register what is represented in another person's mind even in the absence of an intention to do so and without explicit knowledge of doing so. This claim entails a distinction between implicit and explicit ToM functions.

Much of the research that has prompted the proposal of implicit ToM comes from the field of developmental psychology. Specifically, by assessing indirect measures such as eye movements, researchers have concluded that infants as young as 7-15 months are able to register false beliefs (i.e., they can recognize that others can have beliefs about the world that are different from reality, based on outdated knowledge; Kovács, Téglás, & Endress, 2010; Onishi & Baillargeon, 2005; Surian, Caldi, & Sperber, 2007). These findings have prompted a revision of thinking about the developmental trajectory of ToM, since more than 20 years of research employing explicit measures of ToM (e.g., verbal responses, pointing) indicated that accurate attribution of others' false beliefs was not reliably demonstrated until children reach approximately 4 years of age (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001). Thus, along with the proposal for an implicit-explicit ToM dimension, the results from the infancy studies suggest the existence of early and later developing ToM capacities, which may or may not be developmentally continuous (Baillargeon, Scott, & He, 2010; Pemer & Roessler, 2012). …

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