An essay by – Heather Spoonheim

A solid understanding of theory of mind (ToM) is extremely important to understanding some of the fallacies that derive from its misapplication. ToM “is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own.”[1] To better understand this definition, let us consider a situation where ToM is applied both practically and accurately.

While Bob was out shopping, his wife, Mary, poured all of his whiskey down the sink. After Bob returned home, his boss, Phil, came over to visit and asked Bob for a drink of whiskey. Upon hearing this, Mary quickly excused herself and left the house.

If the above passage seems like anything more than a series of random events to you, then you have actually applied ToM several times, in several different ways and in only a matter of seconds. The most advanced computers available today could not begin to extrapolate all the information that you just did from that short passage.

Making sense of the above passage required imagining at least 2 different virtual models of the human mind. You realized that Bob didn’t know his whiskey had been poured down the sink and that he would likely be angry when he found out. To do this you had to keep track of beliefs, intents and knowledge, attribute them to different people and, finally, make a prediction of behavior based on those models. You even predicted Bob’s reaction without being prompted with a question as to how he might react.

Incredibly, you did not actually derive your prediction of Bob’s behavior from your own model of Bob’s mind. You analyzed Mary’s behavior, used it to extrapolate your model of her mind and realized that she was predicting Bob’s behavior based on her model of Bob’s mind. You did all of this with so little effort that you didn’t even realize that you were doing it. I bet you feel pretty smart right now, huh?

The Importance of ToM

The human ToM is one of the least talked about but most important aspects of human evolution. Our highly evolved ToM allowed for the development of complex social structures that gave us a significant advantage over other creatures that had evolved bigger teeth, bigger claws, and much more powerful limbs and jaws. We divided our duties of protecting our camps and children, hunting for meat, and gathering other foodstuffs because we understood that particular duties were being handled by others. We also developed highly organized strategies for hunting and killing large animals that would have been impossible to conquer using spontaneous blitz attacks.

As a simple example of the advantage of ToM to hunting, consider a Stone Age hunter tracking a wild boar. Part way down the trail, the hunter realizes that the boar is headed for a nearby watering hole and he also realizes that the boar has chosen the longer of two trails. Taking a shortcut, the hunter easily catches up to the boar at the watering hole and secures a feast for his entire clan. A pair of jackals might have also been on the trail of the boar but tracking only by scent, and lacking ToM, they do not have the advantage of predicting the boar’s destination. The jackals end up missing out on a valuable meal.

Upon returning with the slaughtered boar to camp, the hunter proceeds to divide the meat. He knows that the shaman likes the spleen for ritualistic practices. He knows that the old toothless woman likes the liver. He gives a strip of tenderloin to a young girl that he fancies and then quickly gives an entire shoulder to his rival for the girl’s attention – that he might appease his rival and reduce the potential for physical confrontation. These sorts of social dynamics are only possible with a very highly evolved theory of mind.

When people begin discussing human evolution and marvel at how we survived, against all odds, with such pathetic biological weaponry, they all too often seem to ignore the human capacity to model other minds: the minds of other hunters, other predators, the prey animal being pursued, and of other creatures that become silent or scurry away in reaction to the aforementioned animals. Humans can whip up numerous artificial minds instantaneously to keep track of all of these or they can hold onto long term models used to keep tabs on the social dynamics at work around them. Other animals can exhibit behaviors that suggest a theory of mind, but none have a theory of mind anywhere near as developed as that of man. It could easily be argued that it is the one area in which the greatest margin has evolved between humans and every other creature on the planet.

Fallacies of ToM

One drawback of our ToM is that it might be a little too highly developed. Humans are prone to whipping up a virtual model of the human mind without even considering whether or not it applies in a given situation. This leaves us exhibiting some extremely irrational behaviors such as having conversations with cats, begging stop lights to change, and commanding teetering objects not to fall as we run to catch them. In a rural setting we can do such silly things as begging fire to ignite, pleading with the sky for rain, and asking the wind in our most polite tone if it might not be so kind as to stop blowing for just one afternoon.

This sort of fallacious projection of human consciousness into elements of the environment can become so convoluted that we actually start to negotiate with the natural elements. Think for a moment about a drought stricken farmer standing in his field, looking up at the sky and saying, “If you would just be so kind as to give me a little rain I would love you so much! Give a guy just a little break, would ya?” It is easy to understand the desperation of such a man and overlook the irrational nature of his behavior. Although we might think he was slightly crazy if he started doing a little jig in the hopes that the sky might find him entertaining and thereby be more persuaded by his desires, some twentieth century farmers actually paid money for Native American rain dancers to do just that.

It shouldn’t be hard then to understand why so many primitive cultures have been documented as having beliefs in sun, sky, wind, and fire gods. Consider the modern phenomenon of clans decorating themselves in ritualistic colours, painting their faces to match, and standing in front of a video display screaming, “Run, you son-of-a-bitch, RUN!” There is absolutely no possibility that their screams can be heard by the player running with the ball but even the most intelligent, educated, otherwise reasonable individuals in the crowd form such vivid connections with the ToM that they have created for their favorite player that they just can’t help but scream as though the player himself is within earshot.

The Moral of the Story

As a species it is not only natural, but overwhelmingly compelling for us to try to understand and influence everything around us by leveraging our most powerful evolutionary tool – our ability to instantly and effortlessly fabricate a model of our own conscious mind. As a civilized society, however, it is important that we begin to realize the limitations of this highly evolved tool, and the fallacy of applying it erroneously to inanimate objects, house pets, and nature. Our theory of mind is the wrong tool to use for understanding such things and actually leads to a misunderstanding of these things. Furthermore, such a fallacious projection can lead to the very compelling and misleading belief that we can influence such things through verbal persuasion.

Views: 285

Comment by Scarlette Blues on March 28, 2011 at 10:44am

Great essay Heather! It really take you to the basis of the human mind. Actions like yelling at the sky for rain is a great example for humans "calling to the gods."


The mind is a very powerful thing. When you really break down the thinking the process (your first example), it really shows just how fast the brain interprets the things around us and all without us being conscience of our brain's decision. 

Comment by Morgan Matthew on March 28, 2011 at 10:47am
Comment by Heather Spoonheim on March 28, 2011 at 10:59am
Thanks, Scarlette and Morgan.  I'm working on a series of these to show how the god-concept and religion evolved.  A lot of theists like to invoke the "it's just natural to call out to God" argument, but they can't explain why we equally plead with our cars to start.  Furthermore, our very concept of God has evolved with our understanding of our surroundings, world, galaxy, cosmos - which is a very convincing argument that God is nothing more than a function of mankind's collective understanding of those things.  That God exists as nothing more than a function of our understanding is a proof of the fiction, or at least the fallacy asserting of any sort of higher consciousness.
Comment by Heather Spoonheim on March 28, 2011 at 11:06am
I should caveat that - the assertion of a higher consciousness is exactly on par with the conscious minds we project into dolls, cars, stubborn jar lids, and every single other 'thing' that we argue or plead with, or interpret emotion in, like emoticons :)
Comment by Walter Maki on March 28, 2011 at 12:15pm

A most excellent read Heather. I definitely want to learn much more on this subject.

I am very guilty of ToM when working on a project....I vent when it doesn't go the way I want it to...I tend to be quite small children and little old ladies best not be in ear shot lol.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on March 28, 2011 at 12:41pm

Thanks Walt & Nelson.


@Walter Maki - that first book that Nelson mentions looks really interesting.  Just the reviews for it on wikipedia have more to say about ToM as a basis for religion than my whole damn blog - kinda makes me feel silly just to think of it that way.

Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on March 28, 2011 at 1:08pm
Good topic Heather. I wonder how important culture is to this. Does everyone swear at the printer when it won't print ? It also ties in with the idea of cognitive dissonance where people claim to believe in god but (say) also use astrology and healing crystals without seeing the contradiction. Your blog brings it to our attention - that is what matters so thanks.
Comment by Heather Spoonheim on March 28, 2011 at 1:45pm
Actually I fully assert that without ToM you cannot tell a lie.  Without ToM there is no understanding of the difference between your knowledge and that of another person.  Not only would you be unable to conceive of creating an incongruence between that which seems to be one, but you likely also wouldn't have any grasp of language.  With no concept of a mind outside of your own, what could you possibly have to say?  Even our internal dialogs are usually framed from within different models of our own mind (angel on one shoulder, devil on the other shoulder cliche).
Comment by Heather Spoonheim on March 28, 2011 at 1:56pm
Resistentialism - LOL! I can't tell you how many times I've really pushed down so freakin' hard on cntrl-alt-del that I thought I might just break my keyboard!  I do think that this is an issue that we as a society need to clear up, however.  Letting children imagine ToM for dolls is just lovely, and I think very important developmentally, but I do think that at some point they need to consider the error of it.
Comment by Heather Spoonheim on March 28, 2011 at 2:01pm
Do you guys work in a zoo together?


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