Senior Research Fellow Bruno Mölder, University of Tartu
Professor Dr. Marc V.P. Slors, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands
We, humans, are social creatures. Most of the time, we are rather good at understanding others and we efficiently coordinate our behaviour with friends and strangers. But how do we do this? What are the psychological processes that enable us to understand and to interact with each other?
For more than 30 years, philosophers and psychologists have assumed that we understand others by attributing to them mental states - such as beliefs, desires, or intentions. This ability is called "mindreading." There are two common ways to explain how mindreading works. According to theory-theory, we have a tacit theory about how mental states come about and guide behaviour. According to simulation theory, we simulate other people's mental processes by imagining what it is like to be in their situation.
Recently, several authors, whom I label interactionists, have challenged the view that social cognition is based on mindreading. They argue that social cognition is based on various bodily processes and on contextual understanding and that it does not require mindreading. In order to understand how social cognition works, we should study social interactions instead. The upshot is that we have two clashing views on how to explain human social cognition: theories of mindreading and interactionism.
I argue that the two approaches focus on different aspects of social cognition, and that instead of being treated as mutually exclusive, they should be integrated. I outline an integrative framework that enables us to better understand how, when put together, different components of social cognition enable us to get along with other people. I show that both approaches have ignored an important aspect of our lives: social relationships. I argue that the ability to read minds has emerged in evolution because it helps us to regulate our social relations when we are uncertain about what kind of social relationship we are currently involved in.