A solid understanding of theory of mind (ToM) is extremely important to understanding some of the fallacies that derive from its misapplication. ToM “is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own.” To better understand this definition, let us consider a situation where ToM is applied both practically and accurately.
While Bob was out shopping, his wife, Mary, poured all of his whiskey down the sink. After Bob returned home, his boss, Phil, came over to visit and asked Bob for a drink of whiskey. Upon hearing this, Mary quickly excused herself and left the house.
If the above passage seems like anything more than a series of random events to you, then you have actually applied ToM several times, in several different ways and in only a matter of seconds. The most advanced computers available today could not begin to extrapolate all the information that you just did from that short passage.
Making sense of the above passage required imagining at least 2 different virtual models of the human mind. You realized that Bob didn’t know his whiskey had been poured down the sink and that he would likely be angry when he found out. To do this you had to keep track of beliefs, intents and knowledge, attribute them to different people and, finally, make a prediction of behavior based on those models. You even predicted Bob’s reaction without being prompted with a question as to how he might react.
Incredibly, you did not actually derive your prediction of Bob’s behavior from your own model of Bob’s mind. You analyzed Mary’s behavior, used it to extrapolate your model of her mind and realized that she was predicting Bob’s behavior based on her model of Bob’s mind. You did all of this with so little effort that you didn’t even realize that you were doing it. I bet you feel pretty smart right now, huh?
The Importance of ToM
The human ToM is one of the least talked about but most important aspects of human evolution. Our highly evolved ToM allowed for the development of complex social structures that gave us a significant advantage over other creatures that had evolved bigger teeth, bigger claws, and much more powerful limbs and jaws. We divided our duties of protecting our camps and children, hunting for meat, and gathering other foodstuffs because we understood that particular duties were being handled by others. We also developed highly organized strategies for hunting and killing large animals that would have been impossible to conquer using spontaneous blitz attacks.
As a simple example of the advantage of ToM to hunting, consider a Stone Age hunter tracking a wild boar. Part way down the trail, the hunter realizes that the boar is headed for a nearby watering hole and he also realizes that the boar has chosen the longer of two trails. Taking a shortcut, the hunter easily catches up to the boar at the watering hole and secures a feast for his entire clan. A pair of jackals might have also been on the trail of the boar but tracking only by scent, and lacking ToM, they do not have the advantage of predicting the boar’s destination. The jackals end up missing out on a valuable meal.
Upon returning with the slaughtered boar to camp, the hunter proceeds to divide the meat. He knows that the shaman likes the spleen for ritualistic practices. He knows that the old toothless woman likes the liver. He gives a strip of tenderloin to a young girl that he fancies and then quickly gives an entire shoulder to his rival for the girl’s attention – that he might appease his rival and reduce the potential for physical confrontation. These sorts of social dynamics are only possible with a very highly evolved theory of mind.
When people begin discussing human evolution and marvel at how we survived, against all odds, with such pathetic biological weaponry, they all too often seem to ignore the human capacity to model other minds: the minds of other hunters, other predators, the prey animal being pursued, and of other creatures that become silent or scurry away in reaction to the aforementioned animals. Humans can whip up numerous artificial minds instantaneously to keep track of all of these or they can hold onto long term models used to keep tabs on the social dynamics at work around them. Other animals can exhibit behaviors that suggest a theory of mind, but none have a theory of mind anywhere near as developed as that of man. It could easily be argued that it is the one area in which the greatest margin has evolved between humans and every other creature on the planet.
Fallacies of ToM
One drawback of our ToM is that it might be a little too highly developed. Humans are prone to whipping up a virtual model of the human mind without even considering whether or not it applies in a given situation. This leaves us exhibiting some extremely irrational behaviors such as having conversations with cats, begging stop lights to change, and commanding teetering objects not to fall as we run to catch them. In a rural setting we can do such silly things as begging fire to ignite, pleading with the sky for rain, and asking the wind in our most polite tone if it might not be so kind as to stop blowing for just one afternoon.
This sort of fallacious projection of human consciousness into elements of the environment can become so convoluted that we actually start to negotiate with the natural elements. Think for a moment about a drought stricken farmer standing in his field, looking up at the sky and saying, “If you would just be so kind as to give me a little rain I would love you so much! Give a guy just a little break, would ya?” It is easy to understand the desperation of such a man and overlook the irrational nature of his behavior. Although we might think he was slightly crazy if he started doing a little jig in the hopes that the sky might find him entertaining and thereby be more persuaded by his desires, some twentieth century farmers actually paid money for Native American rain dancers to do just that.
It shouldn’t be hard then to understand why so many primitive cultures have been documented as having beliefs in sun, sky, wind, and fire gods. Consider the modern phenomenon of clans decorating themselves in ritualistic colours, painting their faces to match, and standing in front of a video display screaming, “Run, you son-of-a-bitch, RUN!” There is absolutely no possibility that their screams can be heard by the player running with the ball but even the most intelligent, educated, otherwise reasonable individuals in the crowd form such vivid connections with the ToM that they have created for their favorite player that they just can’t help but scream as though the player himself is within earshot.
The Moral of the Story
As a species it is not only natural, but overwhelmingly compelling for us to try to understand and influence everything around us by leveraging our most powerful evolutionary tool – our ability to instantly and effortlessly fabricate a model of our own conscious mind. As a civilized society, however, it is important that we begin to realize the limitations of this highly evolved tool, and the fallacy of applying it erroneously to inanimate objects, house pets, and nature. Our theory of mind is the wrong tool to use for understanding such things and actually leads to a misunderstanding of these things. Furthermore, such a fallacious projection can lead to the very compelling and misleading belief that we can influence such things through verbal persuasion.