How Hominids Manage Tricky Social Relations: The Theory of Mind and Mindreading Games

(An extract of my book Narrative Madness, edited by Katie Fox, which you can get at or on Amazon.)

The Machiavellian Prince of Primates

Many other species are social as well, so why didn’t they develop sophisticated systems of symbolic communication? Primate societies developed language because of the exaggerated complexity of our manipulative social interactions. The MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences says that “primate social relationships have been characterized as manipulative and sometimes deceptive at sophisticated levels” (Wilson and Kiel). Writes Kerstin Dautenhahn, biologist and professor of computer science, paraphrasing Frans de Waal, “Identifying friends and allies, predicting behavior of others, knowing how to form alliances, manipulating group members, making war, love and peace, are important ingredients of primate politics.” A hominid skilled at manipulation would be better suited than its more submissive counterparts to win resources, sex and power.

The repeated emphasis on manipulation calls to mind the frank and cynical sociological theories of Machiavelli. In fact, the term “Machiavellian intelligence” is often used to describe the kind of intelligence primates developed to negotiate these tricky social relations.

How do humans manage these complex Machiavellian games? Two theories compete: the theory of mind and simulation theory. According to the theory of mind, children have to develop an awareness that others have separate minds. Even though babies quickly develop the ability to focus on and follow someone with the eyes, recognizing certain people as providers of food, warmth and affection, they are not aware that other people think differently and know other things. Toddlers sometimes talk about a movie, for instance, to adults who have not seen it, assuming that everyone has had the same experiences that they have had.

An important developmental step occurs when a child recognizes that someone else holds a false belief. In her book Why do We Care about Literary Characters? (2010), Blakey Vermeule, professor of English,  describes an experiment: a child is told to put a marble into one of two cups then asked to leave the room. In the presence of a second child, the experimenters switch the marble from one container to the other, then ask the child to predict where the first child will look for the marble when she or he returns to the room. Very young children will point to the container with the marble, assuming the absent child knows what they know. Around age four, children begin to develop an understanding that others do not share the same brain. Only then will they point to the empty container (Vermeule 37).

Although humans develop a theory of mind, the awareness is never complete, which explains why people are shocked to hear that an educated person has never heard of their favorite book. The surprised ones forget there was a time they did not know of the book either. The same thing happens with songs, facts and concepts. People often fail to realize that the person they have just met has heard all the jokes about their name a million times. Since they are seeing the person for the first time, they mistakenly assume they are saying something new and clever. One more instance: Omar works in an advertising agency and frequently has to explain to clients that customers are not familiar with their terminology. The term “a circular,” which seems basic to anyone in advertising, may not be understood by the general public, so should not be included in advertising. Although a theory of mind is necessary for effective social interaction, we still sometimes fail to recognize that others have different knowledge and experiences.

When children realize that others have their own thoughts, the child starts guessing what is going on in others’ heads, which is a form of metacognition, or thinking about thinking, for “having a mental state and representing another individual as having such a state are entirely different matters,” says professor of philosophy and cognitive science Alvin I. Goldman in Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Mindreading (2006). “The latter activity, mentalizing or mindreading, is a second-order activity: It is a mind thinking about minds” (Goldman 3). Goldman, following the lead of other cognitive scientists, calls the human tendency to attribute headaches, beliefs, and aspirations to others “mentalizing” or “mindreading.”

Mindreading is not a psychic power; it is a guessing game and can be highly inaccurate. By way of illustration, a private student I was teaching, a middle-aged woman from Bulgaria, seemed uncomfortable, frustrated and impatient with me. Fearing that she was dissatisfied with my teaching style, I asked the director to look into the situation. It turned out that the student had developed a crush on me. I had completely misinterpreted the signals. Instead of looking for another teacher, I just mentioned my boyfriend Omar.

As another example, at an anti-apartheid rally at the University of Utah in the ‘80s. A man from South Africa spoke. I turned to the older woman next to me, assuming that we were on the same wavelength, and said, “Wasn’t that a great speech?” She said something like, “Yes! So powerful. I really appreciate his point about the purity of races and how races should not intermarry.” “He didn’t say that!” “He did!” “He didn’t!” When she shook the speaker’s hand and thanked him for the brilliant talk, he smiled at her with appreciation. Misinterpretations were crisscrossing everywhere.

Gauging what someone is thinking is not easy, but one of the best indicators is the eyes. What someone is looking at is most likely what they are thinking about. We can easily tell when someone wants food from our plate or when they are not listening to us. The human ability to track eye movements is an evolutionary skill, made easier because of the dramatic whites of our eyes. The development of the sclera marks the importance hominid evolution has put on eye movement. (A statement like “the importance hominid evolution has put on eye movement” is another instance of how our sentences seem to imbue subjects, like hominid evolution, with intention.) Babies, instead of looking at the lips of a person who is speaking, whose rapid lip movements should catch their attention, begin following the eyes early on in their development.

When children understand that someone is hiding their thoughts or feelings, they realize that they can also dissimulate, even lie. Knowing that others lie causes a child to wonder whether they can tell when he or she is lying. Layers of reflexivity become essential to the manipulation of social situations: “I took the cookie. I know that you know that I took the cookie, and I I know that you know that I know that you know that I lied about the cookie, so perhaps I will confess in an attempt to ease my punishment.” Most humans can easily handle four levels of reflexivity, sometimes up to six; after that we all seem to get lost.

We even play mind games in situations that haven’t yet happened. We think, “If I confess, then Mom will get angry and think less of me. Maybe we will fight, so I will pretend that nothing has happened, even though we both know where the cookies ended up.” We test out various strategies by playing them out in our minds, animating the other people through mindreading games. We are not guessing what that person actually thinks but what they might think in a particular situation.

We also carry on mind-reading games when someone goes away for a long time, continuing to guess what they would think and say and do. The theory of mind explains why our parents do not need to be anywhere nearby for us to hear their voices in our heads. No matter where Mom is, we carry a version of her around with us, and we know – or we think we know – what she would say in almost every circumstance. In other words, we have created a character of our mother; we have fictionalized her.

Though we have created a character of our mother and speak for her, we cannot control what she will say. Although she is an internalized fiction, we cannot stop her from making certain comments. If we are going to imagine possible scenarios, we have to allow the character in our minds to respond as we think the real person would. Once a character is established in our minds, its internal logic seems to run independently.

Even in our fantasies, we expect the personage to behave as they really would. I heard a gay man tell a straight woman that she shouldn’t fantasize about Ricky Martin because “He isn’t batting for your team.” She expressed surprise and then brushed the singer off as fantasy material. Hooking up with Ricky Martin was nearly as impossible for him as for her, so why could it possibly matter which team Martin plays for?

We even continue to read the minds of those who have died. Dead parents never go away. “When it comes to death,” reasons research psychologist Jesse Bering in “The Folk Psychology of Souls” (2006), “human cognition apparently is not well equipped to update the list of players in our complex social rosters by accommodating the recent nonexistence of one of them” (Bering 456). We continue to animate the dead because we do not know how to delete the character from our minds, so the dead haunt us.

We animate fictional characters in the same way we play mindreading games with the real people in our lives, inventing people to test out strategies or hypothetical situations. Walking downtown one afternoon, I really needed to pee. I imagined urinating behind some bushes outside City Hall and immediately pictured a guard looking at me from one of the windows. In my daydream, he came out and gave me a lecture and threatened a ticket. Next, I thought about going into a cafe that I frequent in the mornings, but a bathroom in the San Francisco Civic Center is likely to be visited by homeless people and drug addicts, so the key is kept behind the counter. I imagined talking to an employee I knew and, of course, he said it was all right. But I wasn’t sure he or anyone I knew would be there since it was an unfamiliar shift. I pictured myself talking to an unknown barista and explaining that I was a regular customer. For proof, I remembered that I had a frequent customer card. When I showed her the card, she gave me the key. This solution seemed viable, so I went into the cafe.

We habitually produce and consume narrative because it “pays us back with large doses of really juicy social information,” Vermeule says, “information that would be too costly, dangerous, and difficult for us to extract from the world on our own” (Vermeule 12). Stories allow us to test strategies before we commit our bodies to an action. Thus, Vermeule calls stories “the greatest practical-reasoning schemes ever invented” (Vermeule xii).

These voices in our heads, including the fictional personae, appear to have wills of their own. Fictional figures seem alive to us because we animate them in exactly the same ways that we animate the real people we know. Fully 92% of writers said that they have experienced the “illusion of independent agency,” or the belief that their characters have “their own thoughts, feelings, and actions” (366), according to a study by psychologists Marjorie Taylor, Sara Hodges and Adele Kohányi called “The Illusion of Independent Agency: Do Adult Fiction Writers Experience Their Characters as Having Minds of Their Own?” (2002-3). Let’s hear that number again: 92% of authors admit they get carried away by narrative madness! And, quite probably the other 8% wanted their characters to take on lives of their own, but failed to give them life.

Works Cited

Bering, Jesse M. “The Folk Psychology of Souls.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29 (2006): 453 – 498. William James Hall, Harvard University. PDF.

Dautenhahn, Kerstin. “The Origins of Narrative: In Search of the Transactional Format of Narratives in Humans and Other Social Animals.” International Journal of Cognition and Technology 1.1 (2002): 97 – 123. Print.

Goldman, Alvin I. Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Mindreading. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Taylor, Marjorie, Sara D. Hodges, and Adèle Kohányi. “The Illusion of Independent Agency: Do Adult Fiction Writers Experience Their Characters as Having minds of Their Own?” Imagination, Cognition, and Personality 22.4 (2002-3): 361 – 380. Bayword Publishing Company, Inc. PDF.

Vermeule, Blakey. Why do We Care about Literary Characters? Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2010. Print.

Wilson, Robert A., and Frank C. Keil., eds. “Machiavellian Intelligence.” The MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999. Print.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *