Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The social sense - Theory of mind in 7-month old human infants.

A core component of our social cognition is the capacity to formulate a representation of what someone else believes to be true, even if that belief is false, and it has generally been accepted that this ability (theory of mind, or ToM) does not appear until children are 3-4 years old. Kovács et al. have found a behavioral paradigm, that when applied to both adults and infants, suggests that they form representations of others' beliefs in the same way. They developed a method for investigating ToM mechanisms that, in contrast to variants of the standard false belief task, is implicit, makes no reference to others’ beliefs, and requires no behavioral predictions of what agents will do on the basis of their beliefs. They used an object detection task to investigate two questions. First, are belief computations automatically triggered by the mere presence of an agent in adults and in infants as young as 7 months, even when the beliefs are entirely irrelevant to the task participants have to perform? Second, are beliefs about others’ beliefs stored in a format sufficiently similar to our own representations about the environment that both types of representations can affect our behavior?
Human social interactions crucially depend on the ability to represent other agents’ beliefs even when these contradict our own beliefs, leading to the potentially complex problem of simultaneously holding two conflicting representations in mind. Here, we show that adults and 7-month-olds automatically encode others’ beliefs, and that, surprisingly, others’ beliefs have similar effects as the participants’ own beliefs. In a visual object detection task, participants’ beliefs and the beliefs of an agent (whose beliefs were irrelevant to performing the task) both modulated adults’ reaction times and infants’ looking times. Moreover, the agent’s beliefs influenced participants’ behavior even after the agent had left the scene, suggesting that participants computed the agent’s beliefs online and sustained them, possibly for future predictions about the agent’s behavior. Hence, the mere presence of an agent automatically triggers powerful processes of belief computation that may be part of a “social sense” crucial to human societies.

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