Pierre Jacob

Do we use different tools to mindread a defendant and a goalkeeper?

Published on 23 July 2012 at 18:27
Previously on cognitionandculture — Last year, Pierre Jacob posted a critical review of the so-called two-systems model of mindreading, according to which humans use two distinct mental tools to understand the thoughts of others: one is fast and automatic, the other is slower, more reflective, and based on less immediate cues. This is a follow-up on his earlier post.

In a pair of experiments reported in a paper to appear shortly in Psychological Science, Jason Low and Joseph Watts used two distinct paradigms to investigate the human ability of 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds and adults to ascribe false beliefs to an agent. They take their findings to support the two-systems model of mindreading. On this model, while an efficient and inflexible system (system 1) enables a soccer player to score a goal by deceiving the goalkeeper in a split-second, a flexible but inefficient system (system 2) underlies a judge’s reflection over a defendant’s motivations and epistemic states over several days.
fig LowWatts
Low and Watts' identity task: Only the participant, not the agent, knows that the puppet that first moves into the right box and then into the left box is blue on one side and red on the other side. Which of the two boxes will the agent, who prefers blue over red things, look into?

Location and identity

While advocates of the two-systems model have argued that system 1 can only represent an agent’s registration of the presence of an object at a location, they have further argued that one of the hallmarks of system 2 is the ability to reason about beliefs about an object’s identity. For example, only system 2 is taken to enable me to understand that if Carla fails to know that Cicero was called not only ‘Cicero’ but also ‘Tully’, then she might endorse the belief that Cicero was a Roman orator only when this belief is expressed using the name ‘Cicero’, but not the name ‘Tully’, to refer to Cicero.

Using a classical location task (modeled on the classic Ann-Sally task), Low and Watts confirm earlier findings that 3-year-olds, who know the location of an object, find it very hard to correctly answer the question: “Where will an agent with a false belief about its location look for the object?” They also confirm earlier findings that the same children spontaneously look at the box which the agent falsely believes to contain the object showing thereby that they correctly anticipate the agent’s action by gazing at the right box, while they fail the verbal task.

In Low and Watts’ identity task (cf. figure), participants are first given evidence that the agent has a preference for blue over red objects. Secondly, they are requested to understand that the agent, who only sees the blue side of a puppet that is blue on one side and red on the other side, must believe that the puppet is blue all over (so long as the agent has not seen the puppet’s red side). Thirdly, they are further requested to understand that after the agent saw the puppet enter an opaque box on his right under its blue side, later emerge from the box under its red side and finally enter a box on his left, the agent must falsely believe that there are two distinct puppets, the blue one still in the box on his right, and the red one in the box on his left. In this task, however (as the middle line of the figure makes clear), only participants, not the agent, are made aware that there is only one puppet which is blue on one side and red on the other side. Consequently, only participants know that the unique puppet ends up being in the box on the agent’s left (as made clear by the lower line of the figure). Low and Watts also tested participants’ understanding of the agent’s false belief that the blue puppet is in the right box on the basis of either their anticipatory gaze at the box on the right or their explicit answer to the question: “Which box will the agent look into?”

Low and Watts report accurate anticipatory looking by almost all 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds and adults tested in the location task, but by very few among the 3- and 4-year-olds and only by 25% of the adults, in the identity task. Furthermore, while in the identity task, most of the 3-year-olds also failed to answer the prediction question about the action of the agent with a false belief about identity (i.e. in which of the two boxes will the agent look for the blue puppet?), 70% of the adults and 50% of the 4-year-olds, who failed to show accurate anticipatory looking, were able to answer the prediction question in the identity task.

First, Low and Watts assume that system 1 enabled all participants to show accurate anticipatory looking in the location task, but not in the identity task, nor to answer the prediction question in the location task.

Secondly, they assume that system 2 enabled adults and to some extent 4-year-olds, but not 3-year-olds, to answer the prediction question in both the location and the identity tasks. Thus, Low and Watts found that 70% of adults correctly answered the prediction question, but failed to show anticipatory looking, in the identity task.

Does this interesting finding support the view that understanding the propositional contents of another’s belief about identity is a signature of the limitations of system 1 and a hallmark of system 2? Close inspection of the structure of their identity task suggests a different interpretation.

In the familiarization trials, participants learn that the agent has a preference for blue over red objects. In the first stage of the belief-induction trial, after seeing the agent watch what appears to them to be a red puppet move from a left to a right box, participants ascribe to the agent the belief that the red puppet is now in the right box. But as a result of the familiarization trials, they should not think it particularly relevant for the agent to track the location of the red puppet, since in the familiarization trials the agent showed that he had a preference for blue over red objects.

In the second (belief-revision) stage, after participants, but not the agent, learn that the puppet is in fact red on one side and blue on the other side, they revise their own belief about the color of the puppet. As a result, they also revise the content of their earlier belief-ascription and motivations to the agent: now they take the agent to believe that what is in the right box is a blue, not a red, puppet, and therefore a desirable object.

In the third stage, after watching the agent see the puppet, which looks blue to them, move from the right to the left box, they can ascribe to the agent (who fails to know the true colors of the puppet) the following false beliefs: (i) there are two puppets; (ii) the blue desirable one is in the right box; (iii) the red one is in the left box.

Two points are worth making. First, in order to ascribe to the agent the relevant false belief (ii) that the blue puppet is in the right box, participants must understand that the agent’s perspective on the puppet is different from their own. But that is not sufficient: in the second (belief-revision) stage of the belief-induction trial, participants must further revise their own belief about the color of the robot-dog and also compute the consequences of this belief revision on the revision of the contents of the beliefs and motivations ascribed to the agent. Belief revision, not representing the content of another’s belief about an object’s identity per se, might explain why adults failed to show anticipatory looking.

Secondly, participants could not accurately anticipate the agent’s action by looking at the right box unless they had ascribed to the agent the false belief that what he takes to be a blue puppet is in the right box, which requires participants to revise their own belief. But while Low and Watts did not impose any time limit for answering the prediction question, they measured anticipatory looking only 1,750 ms after the end of the third stage of the belief-induction trial. This temporal difference alone might explain why adults could answer the prediction question, but did not show accurate anticipatory looking, in the identity task.

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Revising the belief revision paradigm
Gergely Csibra   31 July 2012 at 16:46
Pierre is correct: this study says more about revision of beliefs, and revision of contents of ascribed beliefs, than about belief ascription per se. This is an important distinction when we consider the limitations of the automatic cognitive mechanisms underlying action anticipation (i.e., "System 1" in the two-system accounts). These mechanisms may not be flexible enough to take into account all the incoming information that may warrant the revision of ascribed beliefs, but this does not entail that the mental states that they attribute cannot be regarded as proper beliefs, only 'registrations.'

Consider the following small change in the procedure of Low and Watts. Instead of revealing the double identity of the puppet after belief ascription, it could be shown to the participants before it (see the figure below). Passing this version of the task, i.e., successfully anticipating a reaching action towards the box on the right, would also require the ascription of beliefs about the puppet's identity, but it would not force the participants to revise their own and the ascribed beliefs.

low watts x

This result would suggest that the difference between the two kinds of measures (action anticipation vs. verbal prediction) applied in the Low and Watts study test not two different systems of mindreading but require the participants to use the same (meta-)representational system in two different ways. But since we do not yet know what the results of this modified paradigm would be, this remains a speculation.

Research strategies on early mindreading
Dan Sperber   15 August 2012 at 15:23
Thanks to Pierre for drawing our attention to this interesting study and to showing its limits, and thanks to Gergo for his great idea of a follow up. I would like to make a more general comment regarding the research strategy involved. So, since Onishi & Baillargeon (2005) pioneering study, many others have confirmed that not just four-year-olds but infants may have expectations regarding the behaviour of an agent that are based not on the environment the agent perceives but on information previously acquired by the agent and that has become obsolete. In some reasonable sense of ‘false belief’, this means that the infant attributes a false belief to the agent. I don’t want to belabour this terminological issue however.

The point is that there is some attribution of a mistaken informational state to the agent, and this had been properly evidenced in older children but not at all in infants. Now, it might be that older children’s attribution is based on an altogether different mental system, but why should this be a privileged hypothesis driving research? Why not first ask the more general question: ‘what develops in the ability to understand the mental state and behaviour of other agents and how?’, rather than privileging the hypothesis that this development involves the kicking in of an altogether different system? The main reason seems to be theoretical conservatism. There was a relatively standard view of proper mindreading emerging around the age of four. Considering the infant evidence to reveal the existence of a superficially similar but in reality quite different mechanism leaves the standard approach intact. Theoretical conservatism is not an absurd research strategy, especially when what is being ‘conserved’ is a richly explanatory theory, but this is not the case here. Human communication, for instance, involves the attribution of fairly complex mental states starting in the second year of life if not earlier, and the standard theory of mindreading has nothing to say about this.

Pierre Jacob

City: Paris
Country: France

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