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A Problem for Minimal Theory of Mind

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Mindreading is the process of identifying a mental state as a mental state that some particular individual, another or yourself, has. To say someone has a theory of mind is another way of saying that she is capable of mindreading.

Butterfill & Apperly (2013) constructed a minimal theory of mind. This theory describes a model of minds and actions which, if it were implemented, would enable you to track others’ false beliefs. At least within limits.

This minimal model has a signature limit: it does not enable you to track false beliefs which essentially involve a mistake about numerical identity. Such as Lois Lane’s false belief that Superman and Clark Kent are distinct people (Jerry & Joe, 1939).

Signature limits generate predictions. Automatic belief-tracking in adults, and belief-tracking in infants, are both subject to signature limits associated with minimal theory of mind.[1]

The Kovács Effect

Kovács, Téglás, & Endress (2010) established that another’s irrelevant belief can influence how quickly you can detect the presence of an object. Despite some initial doubts (Phillips et al., 2015), this finding has been widely replicated by several labs (including Wel, Sebanz, & Knoblich, 2014; Edwards & Low, 2017; El Kaddouri, Bardi, De Bremaeker, Brass, & Wiersema, 2020).


Why do others’ false beliefs ever have an effect on your own actions?

Motor Mindreading Conjecture

Predictions of the Conjecture

  1. In motor mindreading only, goal-tracking will manifest sensitivity to agents’ beliefs.

  2. In motor mindreading only, physically constraining protagonists or participants will impair belief tracking.

This talk concerns the second prediction only.

Findings So Far

Low, Edwards, & Butterfill (2020) support the prediction: physically constraining a protagonist did impair belief tracking.

Six (2022, p. Experiment 2) did not support the prediction: physically constraining participants did not impair their belief tracking.

And the results from a study in preparation that builds on Zani, Butterfill, & Low (2020)’s balance paradigm found only suggestive evidence for the prediction.


automatic : As we use the term, a process is automatic just if whether or not it occurs is to a significant extent independent of your current task, motivations and intentions. To say that mindreading is automatic is to say that it involves only automatic processes. The term `automatic' has been used in a variety of ways by other authors: see Moors (2014, p. 22) for a one-page overview, Moors & De Houwer (2006) for a detailed theoretical review, or Bargh (1992) for a classic and very readable introduction
model : A model is a way some part or aspect of the world could be.
signature limit : A signature limit of a system is a pattern of behaviour the system exhibits which is both defective given what the system is for and peculiar to that system. A signature limit of a model is a set of predictions derivable from the model which are incorrect, and which are not predictions of other models under consideration.
tracking an attribute : For a process to track an attribute or thing is for the presence or absence of the attribute or thing to make a difference to how the process unfolds, where this is not an accident. (And for a system or device to track an attribute is for some process in that system or device to track it.)
Tracking an attribute or thing is contrasted with computing it. Unlike tracking, computing typically requires that the attribute be represented.


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  1. In favour: Wang, Hadi, & Low (2015); Low & Watts (2013); Low, Drummond, Walmsley, & Wang (2014); Mozuraitis, Chambers, & Daneman (2015); Edwards & Low (2017); Fizke, Butterfill, Loo, Reindl, & Rakoczy (2017); Oktay-Gür, Schulz, & Rakoczy (2018); Edwards & Low (2017); Edwards & Low (2019). Against: Kulke, von Duhn, Schneider, & Rakoczy (2018) argue that although the paradigm from Low & Watts (2013) replicates, attempts to modify it to avoid confounding factors do not produce comparable results. See also Scott, Richman, & Baillargeon (2015); Carruthers (2015); Carruthers (2015a); Kampis & Kovács (2022). ↩︎