Mind Perception

How do we engage in mind reading?

Mind perception is a vibrant, active topic across academia, drawing in primatologists, developmental psychologists, philosophers, and neuro-scientists, among others. Even a partial survey of the field can occupy an entire book or edited volume — and often does. Some of the relevant work in this field has been done through the broader lens of person perception and trait judgment (Gilbert, 1998). However, in this current entry, we base our scope to how human minds attempt to model other human minds as we focus primarily on work that relates most directly to social cognition.

Looking through the lens of social cognition, mind perception is defined as the everyday inferential act of a perceiver ascribing mental states such as intentions, beliefs, desires, and feelings to others. To address this phenomenon, we use the term mind reading interchangeably with mind perception.

At first glance, mind perception seems impossible. Indeed, philosophers often speak of the “problem of other minds” as a basic and punishing conundrum: people can never really be sure that other people even have minds, not to mention the challenge of figuring out what might be going on in them. Yet somehow most people solve this problem each day, at least to their own satisfaction. How?

Over the past few decades, scholars have identified various routes perceivers take to read other minds. Many of these accounts are single-strategy models, focusing on an individual mechanism or source, such as social projection or behavioral evidence.

In recent years, several bridging models have emerged, describing ways in which perceivers shift between various inferential tools. Under the following headings, we review models of mind-reading strategies as well as models of how perceivers shift between strategies.

Reading situations

Sometimes all we need to know to read someone’s mind are their circumstances.

  • A delivery person steps onto a porch to find a snarling pit bull
  • A programmer’s painstakingly crafted code finally executes correctly after a dozen revisions
  • A lecturer realizes mid-talk that the front zipper on his pants is wide open

For these cases and countless others, at least some of the contents of actors’ minds seem obvious, a reflection of the situation. Philosopher Dennett (1987) argued as much in his account of the intentional stance whereby onlookers ascribe beliefs and desires to actors based on “their place in the world.”

A foundational principle of social psychology is that a good deal of people’s cognitions and behaviors are a product of the situations they face (Ross & Nisbelt, 1991). While everyday perceiving may be susceptible to overlooking such effects, some models of social judgment attempt to capture folk situationism. For instance, Trope’s (1986) model of disposition inference suggests that perceivers often use situations to disambiguate an actor’s behaviors and mental states.

Trope presented perceivers with photos featuring ambiguous facial expressions Opens in new window (e.g., a look that could suggest either anger or happiness) and manipulated the situation in which the display was described as occurring (e.g., a coach whose team is winning or losing). The situational contexts had a dramatic effect on the emotions perceivers ascribed to the actors (e.g., winning coaches were seen as happy, losing ones as angry).

Karniol (e.g., 1986, 2003) has been a central figure in advancing a situation-based mind-reading account. She identified a series of “transformation rules” that perceivers use to predict an actor’s thoughts and feelings. For instance, when asked to read the mind of a target seeing a boat, perceivers might first assume the target’s thoughts reflect the characteristics of the stimulus itself (e.g., “He thought about what a big boat it was”).

Karniol’s (1986) account posits that perceivers work through an ordered series of stimulus-related links in the process of mind reading. For instance, after stimulus characteristics, perceivers might consider stimulus-directed desires (e.g., “He wanted to buy the boat”) and cognitions about similar category members (e.g., “He thought it looked like uncle’s boat”).

This account turns on the idea that perceivers’ reason from prototypes, starting with a “default” view of what human agents think, want, and feel in various circumstances. Perceivers may then adjust from this prototype or default view to reason about themselves and about specific other individuals (Karniol, 2003).

Reading behavior

A substantial amount of social cognition Opens in new window and person perception research in the past half century has roots in attribution theory Opens in new window and research. Tracing back to Heider’s “naïve analysis of action” (1958) attribution theory suggests that perceivers often read target’s minds by attempting to read the causes of their behavior.

In the wake of Heider, attribution scholars embraced and elaborated this approach, unpacking the ways in which perceivers perform causal analyses of behaviors (e.g., Jones & Davis, 1965). A major theme in this work is that perceivers seem especially ready to assume that an actor’s intentions faithfully correspond to displayed behavior or achieved outcomes — a correspondent inference Opens in new window (Gilbert & Malone, 1995).

Recent work has also considered how perceivers read behavioral profiles across situations. For instance, Kammrath, Mendoza-Denton, and Mischel (2005) showed that perceivers were sensitive not only to the base rate of behavior (e.g., semi-frequent friendliness) but also to its covariance Opens in new window with situational features (e.g., friendly to superiors but not subordinates).

Several accounts have focused on the ubiquity with which, and processes by which, perceivers posit mental states underlying behaviors.

Malle (2004) proposed a framework for describing folk explanations for behavior, an inferential chain flowing backwards from intentional behavior to intention, reasons, and the causal history of reasons. Malle (2004) found that the vast majority of spontaneous explanations offered for others’ intentional behavior feature reasons (e.g., “Why did she hire him? Because he was the best candidate.”) and that these reasons typically entailed inferences about the actor’s desires (e.g., “She wanted to hire the best candidate”) and/or beliefs (e.g., “She believed he was the best candidate”).

Elsewhere, Reeder (2009) has argued that perceivers attend to the soft constraints in situations, such as instructions from authorities or bribes that shape the motives ascribed to actors.

Read and Miller (e.g., 2005) have suggested that perceivers look for a fit between observed behavior and their pre-existing schemas—script-like knowledge structures that can organize episodes around actors’ goals. For example, through a process of explanatory coherence, a perceiver might apply a narrative of vindication to an observed episode, which would feature an initial harm, an attempted harm in response, and an underlying goal of retribution.

The human impulse to read minds from behavior starts very early: by age two, infants show evidence of interpreting the intentions underlying behaviors and discriminating between intentional and unintentional acts (e.g., Meltzoff, 1995).

Other work shows that perceivers naturally parse streams of behavior into meaningful units based in part on an actor’s intentions and the fulfillment of goals (e.g., Baird & Baldwin, 2001). Recent research suggests that perceivers read intentions from behavior with great speed, perhaps even automatically (e.g., Fielder & Schenck, 2001).

In short, perceivers often read minds by reading behavior, parsing ongoing and sometimes ambiguous streams of situated action into meaningful acts and then instinctively if imperfectly ascribing corresponding beliefs, desires, and feelings to actors. Along with reading arcs of intentional action, perceivers also draw inferences from non-verbal behavior and voice.

Reading faces

Reading minds by reading faces has a long history, tracing back at least to Aristotle, who noted that hooked noses suggest ferocity and small foreheads imply fickleness. While there are reasons to think that perceivers may read far too much into faces, or commonly misread them altogether, the readiness of perceivers to do so, and the inferential paths perceivers take, continue to be actively studied.

One tradition of research has examined the ways in which static facial features affect social judgments. Zebrowitz (1997) has reviewed how various qualities and configurations, such as attractiveness, are taken as cues by onlookers of a person’s character and attitudes.

Zebrowitz has also documented the ways in which a target’s baby-facedness—a constellation of child-like facial qualities, including a pronounced forehead, large eyes, and a softened chin—affects perceivers’ judgments and behavior (e.g., Friedman & Zebrowitz, 1992).

Baby-faced individuals are expected to be comparatively warm, submissive, and naïve. Recently, Todorove, Said, Engell, and Oosterhof (2008) argued that perceivers spontaneously draw judgments—such as trustworthiness and dominance—from faces within a fraction of a second. These judgments endure, shaping other inferences and behavior, such as voting for political candidates.

Ames and Johar (2009) argued that facial displays are often read in conjunction with the behavior or outcomes they accompany. They suggested that positive affective displays (e.g., expressions of happiness and satisfaction) can augment behavior-based inference, whereas negative displays (e.g., expressions of remorse or dissatisfaction) can discount behavior-based inferences.

They found that perceivers ascribed less benign intentions to helpers when their acts were accompanied by negative compared to positive displays (i.e., seemingly reluctant helpers are seen less positively), but that perceivers ascribed less sinister intentions to harm-doers when their acts were accompanied by negative compared to positive displays (i.e., seemingly reluctant harm-doers are seen more positively). Identical affective displays can thus have divergent effects on mind reading, depending on which behaviors they accompany.

Ames and Johar (2009) also showed that the augmenting and discounting effects of affective displays diminished over the course of accumulating behavioral evidence. As perceivers observe more of an actor’s behavior, their mind reading appears to reflect more behavior-based inferences and less affective display-based adjustments.

Faces play another important role in mind reading: they can signal category memberships that are taken as diagnostic. Perceivers appear to spontaneously extract category membership information — such as sex, race, and age —from facial displays, even under taxing conditions (e.g., Macrae, Quinn, Mason, & Quadflieg, 2005).