LEC talk Tuesday 15 December: Cathleen O'Grady

By jon | December 11, 2015

Tuesday 15 December, 11:00–12:30
Room 1.17, DSB

Cathleen O’Grady (work with Christian Kliesch, Kenny Smith, Thom Scott-Phillips)

The ease and extent of recursive mindreading

Mindreading, also called theory of mind, is the ability to mentally represent the mental states of other individuals, e.g. “Sarah believes in fairies.” Recursive mindreading is the ability to mentally represent mental states that themselves are representations of other mental states, e.g. “Joey knows that Monica thinks that Phoebe doesn’t know that Chandler and Monica love each other.”

Various accounts of pragmatics require not only that interlocutors are able to make inferences about each other’s mental states, but suggest that communicative intentions necessarily require recursive mindreading. However, despite a wealth of research on first-level mindreading and the developmental trajectory of mindreading, the extent of the adult human capacity for recursive mindreading is relatively under-studied. Existing research on the topic suggests that recursive mindreading is both limited and more effortful than other complex memory tasks, but this research suffers from substantial methodological flaws.

Based on the success in developmental studies of using implicit rather than explicit mindreading tasks, we present an implicit test of high levels of recursive mindreading. We show experimentally that adult human recursive mindreading abilities are more advanced than has previously been shown, with high accuracy up to seven levels of embedding. We further show that presentation of the task as implicit rather than explicit improves performance, explaining the difference in results from previous research, and suggesting that a more ecologically valid task is a more accurate test of recursive mindreading capacity. Our results lend support to pragmatic accounts requiring recursive mindreading.