Michael W. Morris
Daniel R. Ames
Eric D. Knowles
University of California, Berkeley
What We Theorize When We Theorize That We Theorize: Examining the “Implicit Theory” Construct From a Cross-Disciplinary Perspective
The human ability to make sense of events through generating explanations has long fascinated philosophers, psychologists, and other scholars. Particularly impressive is the facility with which people generate explanations for others' behaviors. Starting at a surprisingly early age, children seem to instantly interpret observed action in terms of what an agent is thinking, wanting, and planning. They also trace these fleeting mental states to origins in enduring personal dispositions and situational forces. This penchant for making sense of others as individuals with particular beliefs, desires, goals, and traits is essential to how we navigate the social environment. Our inferences about an actor's dispositions tell us whom to avoid, whom to trust, whom to blame, and so forth. Moreover, our perceptions of situational forces tell us which positions to seek out and which predicaments to avoid.
Many scholars have described the lay person's process of generating explanations by analogy to the scientist's process of reasoning from theories. The role of theories in scientific explanations is seen very clearly in the field of psychology because the factors driving behavior cannot be directly observed and hence have to be posited on the basis of a theory. Areas of psychology that settle on a cogent theory often move forward quickly as researchers easily generate explanations for a variety of phenomena; in areas lacking a theory, generating explanations is more difficult. Hence, in accounting for the facility of lay people in generating explanations for behavior, it has been tempting to suggest that they possess theories. Although the differences between lay and scientific explanation are apparent, a host of scholars have drawn the analogy to capture similarities between the lay person and the scientist.
This account—sometimes called the “theory theory”—has developed in several different academic disciplines. In philosophy, scholars have described the role of folk psychology (e.g., Dennett, 1991). In developmental psychology, researchers have proposed that children have an implicit “theory of mind” (e.g., Wellman, 1990). In social psychology, researchers have argued that individuals understand behavior in part by invoking implicit theories (e.g., Bruner & Tagiuri, 1954; Heider, 1958; Ross & Nisbett, 1980; Wegner & Vallacher, 1977). In psychological anthropology and cultural psychology, a growing body of work examines the roles of cultural theories in judgment and explanation (e.g., D'Andrade, 1995; Peng, Ames, & Knowles, 2000). The essence of these accounts is that lay people work with knowledge structures that have the same structure, function, and relationship to evidence as that of scientific theories.
Proponents of the theory theory differ in how far they push the analogy between lay and scientific theories. In this chapter, we take the analogy seriously by identifying the criteria for identifying a piece of knowledge as a theory. This distinguishes the theory account from rival, alternative accounts that posit different kinds of knowledge as the mechanism for lay social understanding. One class of alternatives posits other kinds of learned, structured knowledge such as narratives (e.g., Bruner, 1990) or metaphors (e.g., Lakoff, 1987). Other alternatives posit knowledge structures that are not learned: innate modular cognitive mechanisms for social understanding (Fodor, 1986). Elsewhere, accounts posit learned knowledge that is not structured into theory-like forms, such as knowledge that exists in an associative network (e.g., Read & Miller, 1993) or knowledge derived from imaginative simulation of another person's state of mind (Goldman, 1993). All of these proposals are plausible and may capture part of people's social understanding competence. Our goal, however, is to review the evidence that supports the theory theory relative to these other proposals. This does not require that the alternative approaches be wrong, just incomplete. We do so by reviewing theory theory scholarship in four fields—phil-