Pluralistic Folk Psychology

In the first post, I considered the 4-E objection that mindreading is not an important, frequently used tool in our folk psychological toolkit. I argued that mindreading accounts can withstand this challenge. We do regularly attribute mental states to others and explain and predict their behavior. Nevertheless, such challenges open the door to reconsidering the notion of mindreading. In that spirit, there is a cluster of objections to the orthodox view stemming from pluralistic accounts of folk psychology to which I am much more sympathetic.

Pluralistic folk psychology maintains that we have lots of different methods for understanding and interacting with others and mindreading is just one of these methods. On the pluralistic view, the folk psychological literature has paid far too much attention to mindreading, explanation, and prediction and far too little attention to trait attributions, stereotypes, behavioral schemata, and the way in which we employ these folk psychological tools to regulate our own and others’ behavior.

Kristin Andrews (2012), one of the first to propose this view, argues that some non-human animals clearly are capable of attributing personality traits to others but there is little evidence that they are capable attributing propositional attitudes like beliefs. Similarly, people on the autism spectrum are capable of attributing traits and employing schemata for social interactions but nevertheless have difficulty attributing beliefs and desires. These dissociations suggest the attribution of traits, schemata, etc. do not require mindreading. Andrews argues that humans and others species can function socially quite well with these other social practices. She argues that we mindread only to explain anomalous behavior that we are interested in explaining, and mindreading is just one amongst many social practices that make up our folk psychological toolkit.

Victoria McGeer (2007) offers a related version of folk psychological pluralism that she calls regulative folk psychology. On McGeer’s view, mindreading is more central to folk psychology than on Andrews’ view. McGeer argues that we regularly attribute to ourselves and to others beliefs, emotions, traits, etc. In contrast with the standard mindreading story, however, she emphasizes more than just belief and desire attributions, and she argues that the function of such attributions often is to regulate our own and others’ behavior, not to explain and predict behavior. When I attribute to you the trait of being nurturing, I am using this personality trait to make sense of your past behavior but also, and often most importantly, I am implicitly saying to myself, to someone else, or to you that you ought to behave in a nurturing way because that is who you are. The normative role of folk psychology is not at all well captured by the standard mindreading story.

Finally, Tad Zawidzki (2013) argues that our folk psychological practices primarily aim at what he calls mindshaping rather than mindreading. In ontogenetic development and in adults’ ordinary social interactions, our social practices aim to shape minds to conform to predictable patterns of behavior. Mindshaping comes in the form of imitation, pedagogy, conformity to norms, attribution of traits, narrative self-constitution, etc. By attributing traits and mental states to others, we are attempting to make others’ minds more coherent and more predictable, which enables cooperation, the development of tools and language, and even mindreading. Thus, the primary function of our social practices is to get ourselves and others to conform to certain ways of thinking and behaving to facilitate cooperative engagement.

Two themes of the pluralistic views described above are worth highlighting. First, the views hold that mindreading is just one amongst many social practices. Second, mental state ascriptions are not causal explanations but rather justificatory or rationalizing explanations that regulate our social interactions. These themes do not conflict with the letter of standard mindreading story but are at odds with the spirit of the view. Mindreading theories are not committed to the claim that we always, in every circumstance, must engage in mindreading to understand others. The difference between the standard mindreading story and pluralistic folk psychology is a matter of emphasis and degree. Pluralistic folk psychology emphasizes the other non-mindreading social practices and holds that mindreading, as traditionally understood, is a distinct and relatively rarely used social practice. The standard mindreading story emphasizes mindreading, unsurprisingly, and neglects to say much of anything about any other modes of social interaction.

Pluralistic folk psychology raises two important questions for mindreading theories. First, if one accepts that we can navigate the social world using methods other than mindreading, are mental state ascriptions a necessary or central part of our social interactions? Do we need mindreading at all, or can we just get by with schemata, scripts, personality trait inferences, and stereotypes? My answer, which I defend in chapters 3 and 4 of my book, is that we have a broad repertoire of methods for understanding others and these methods interact in messy ways. Some of these are methods have received little attention from mindreading theorists. I shall argue in the next post that social categorization and stereotypes are deeply influential in our social interactions. They shape how we see others’ behaviors before we even attempt to interpret their mental states. The influence of social categorization and stereotypes is so deep that we might not even recognize that we are employing these social practices until someone with different ways of categorizing and different stereotypes points out that they see the social interaction radically differently. Thus, an adequate account of mindreading ought to take into consideration the effect that these other social practices have on mindreading. (See, for example, Spaulding (2017), Westra (2017a, 2017b).)

The influence goes the other way around, too. Mental state ascriptions can influence the personality trait inferences we make and the scripts we employ. For example, inferring that someone is nurturing or ambitious may require that you make assumptions about their desires and intentions, which may make certain schemata or scripts more readily available. In real-life social interactions (as opposed to abstract, simplified examples employed in the philosophical and empirical literature), these various social practices interact and influence each other in messy ways. We are never just attributing a personality trait or just attributing a desire or just attributing a stereotype. We often are doing all of these things without much reflection on the subtle and complex ways in which mental state attributions, trait attributions, schemas, and stereotypes influence each other. Thus, there is good reason to doubt we can pull apart these social practices in real-life social interactions. This puts pressure on the idea sometimes implicit in pluralistic folk psychology that we can separate mindreading from these other social practices (Andrews 2012, Zawidzki 2013). We cannot, which is all the more reason for the mindreading theorists to embrace the spirit of the challenge from pluralistic folk psychology.

A second question that pluralistic folk psychology raises is whether mental state ascriptions serve as causal explanations and predictions or rationalizing and regulating explanations. The most sensible answer seems to be that our mental state ascriptions serve both of these roles, and others as well. Again, it is messy. As I will argue in future posts, the folk psychological literature has paid virtually no attention to the variety of goals we have in a social interaction, the different approaches to mindreading that correspond to these goals, and the different kinds of products of mindreading. Our goals and corresponding approaches to mindreading have a profound impact on the kind of explanation we generate and what we do with that explanation. Mindreading serves many purposes. In real-life social interactions, the different explanatory roles of mindreading are difficult to pull apart because they shift as our goals and the dynamics of an interaction change. It is not helpful to assert a dichotomy between causal explanations and rationalizing explanations because mindreading can generate many different kinds of products. I shall argue in the next few posts, we have good reason to support pluralism about our repertoire of social practices, the kinds of explanation we generate in social interactions, and what we do with those explanations. A broad, overarching theme of this book is that our social interactions are much messier, more complicated, and more diverse than the empirical and philosophical literatures on folk psychology indicate.

(For those interested in pluralistic folk psychology, Evan Westra, Kristin Andrews, and I are co-editing a special issue in Synthese on this topic. See the call for papers here.)


Andrews, K. 2012. Do Apes Read Minds? Toward a New Folk Psychology: MIT Press.

McGeer, V. 2007. “The regulative dimension of folk psychology.” In Folk psychology re-assessed, 137-156. Springer.

Spaulding, S. 2017. “Do you see what I see? How social differences influence mindreading.”  Synthese.

Westra, E. 2017a. “Character and theory of mind: an integrative approach.”  Philosophical Studies.

Westra, E. 2017b. “Stereotypes, theory of mind, and the action-prediction hierarchy.”  Synthese:1-26.

Zawidzki, T. W. 2013. Mindshaping: A New Framework for Understanding Human Social Cognition: MIT Press.


  1. Liz Schechter

    I like this post, and share its general attitude–that we do engage in mindreading quite regularly, that it is an important part of our folk psychological repertoire, but that mindreading is also intertwined in complex and interesting ways with a variety of other elements of that repertoire.

    Can you however say something about the data that leads you to say that “we do regularly attribute mental states to others and explain and predict their behavior”? I saw your first post as countering objections to the prevalence of mindreading but not as establishing positive reason to think that we engage in it regularly.

    Also–since there’s an obvious vagueness to saying that we engage in mindreading “regularly”–are you prepared to say something like that mindreading is our *core* folk psychological competence? Or not? I’m trying to figure out where exactly to place you with respect to the pluralist folks.


  2. Shannon Spaulding

    Hi Lizzie! Thanks for your comment. You’re right that I didn’t give a positive defense of the broad scope of mindreading claim. The empirical debate about how often/under what circumstances we spontaneously engage in level 2 perspective taking (a kind of mindreading) is to my knowledge still open. But there does seem to be evidence that we do this. See for example Samson et al. (2010). In addition, there seems to be evidence based on descriptive experience sampling that our thoughts frequently are about other people’s mental states. See Bryant et al. (2013). I *do* think that mindreading is our core folk psychological competence, but as I’ll argue in future posts, mindreading isn’t simply belief attribution. It’s much broader than that.

    Bryant, L., Coffey, A., Povinelli, D. J., & Pruett, J. R., Jr. (2013). Theory of Mind experience sampling in typical adults. Consciousness and Cognition, 22(3), 697–707.

    Samson, D., Apperly, I. A., Braithwaite, J. J., Andrews, B. J., & Bodley Scott, S. E. (2010). Seeing it their way: Evidence for rapid and involuntary computation of what other people see. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 36(5), 1255.

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