Episode 2, "An Intellectualist Fossil"


Amelia: Quite a few years ago, I started to wonder whether I was autistic. So I fired up Dr. Google, and Dr. Google gave me what seemed to be a pretty decisive answer: I couldn't be autistic, because I'm able to understand other people's perspectives. And according to Dr. Google, autism is a theory of mind deficit.

The phrase "theory of mind" can mean different things. But in general, it refers to the ability to think about minds. It’s like, if I want to predict another person’s behavior, I have to build a little theory about what’s going on in that person’s head—I have to build my own mental model of what they want, and what they believe. So for example, imagine that I play a cruel trick on you, and I take your cookies out of your cookie jar and I put them in your washing machine. I know that your cookies are now in the washing machine; but according to my theory about your mind, you still falsely believe that the cookies are in the cookie jar. And according to my theory about your mind, you want the cookies. And that’s how I can predict that you will soon stare, disappointed, into your empty cookie jar. So, this concept of “theory of mind” refers to the idea that we can build theories about each others’ minds, and then use those theories to predict each others’ behavior.

Or at least, that’s one way of understanding the concept of theory of mind. As we’ll soon learn, this idea turns out to be surprisingly complicated, and extremely controversial.

For decades, autism has been described as a deficit in theory of mind. According to many researchers and clinicians, autistic people are extra bad at understanding other people's perspectives. Some researchers have gone as far as asserting that autistic people don't even understand that they themselves have perspectives.

It wasn't until years after my appointment with Dr. Google, that I learned more about autism, and learned that most autistic people engage in all sorts of perspective-taking. But even today, you'll find this view of autism in academic research, all over google, in psychology textbooks, and in neuropsychology clinics. For example, here’s a direct quote from an easily google-able website:

Rach: "Many people with autism spectrum disorder appear unable to build this mental model of other minds. They cannot imagine a brain that is not their own, one that does not have the same information, one with different motivations, other feelings, other abilities. They are profoundly unable to ever put themselves into someone else’s shoes, and therefore unable to feel empathy or sometimes even communicate effectively."

Amelia: That website, by the way, is about how to start a career working with autistic children.

Where did this view of autism come from? And why does it continue to haunt us?

This is NeuroDiving, a philosophy podcast about neurodivergence.

I'm Amelia Hicks. This is NeuroDiving's first installment on theory of mind and autism. On today's episode, we explore where this concept of theory of mind came from, and why it has been problematic from the very beginning.

Introducing Joanna (and the “theory of mind deficit” view out in the wild)

Amelia: The theory of mind deficit view of autism isn't just on Google, or in psychology textbooks. We sometimes find it in everyday life. And if you're an academic philosopher, you might encounter it at a philosophy conference.

Joanna: Oh academic conferences. Come for the bad coffee; stay for the awkward mingling! Hi everybody. I’m Joanna Lawson. I have ADHD, and I work as a visiting assistant professor at Oklahoma State University. And I’m helping to create NeuroDiving.

Amelia: I met Joanna in the Spring of 2022 at a podcasting workshop for academic philosophers. After the workshop, Joanna and I decided to team up to work on NeuroDiving. As she mentioned, Joanna is an ADHDer, so she also has first-hand experience with being neurodivergent. Plus, she's a specialist in philosophy of mind.

So Joanna, I want to hear more about this real-world encounter with the "theory of mind deficit" view of autism.

Joanna: Yeah, so this is not too long after we met, actually. I went to this conference where there was a large group of us who were friends. We were sitting, hanging out, catching up over beers. And our conversation turned to a common acquaintance--someone who sometimes comes off as a little rude, and someone who I thought maybe might be neurodivergent; they didn’t identify themself to me this way. And one of my friends wondered, like, maybe we should let this person know how they’re coming off, and, um, seeming to other people. Because they might not know that they’re upsetting people, or seeming rude. And I just remember another one of my friends, sitting back, shaking her head, and shrugging as she took another sip of beer, and saying, "Theory of mind--you either have it or you don't."

Amelia: Wow, so it's like your friend was saying “don't bother letting this person know they're upsetting people, because, if someone doesn't have theory of mind, then there's nothing anyone can do about it.”

Joanna: Well yeah, it seemed like she was basically saying that there's no use trying to communicate with this person about how they affect people, because she might have been attributing the person’s behavior to a theory of mind deficit, that there was no point in letting them know how they affect people because they don’t have that capacity anyway.

Amelia: So, we don’t really know whether that person was actually neurodivergent, but it doesn’t really matter. What’s interesting here is how the myth of the autistic theory of mind deficit influenced Joanna’s friend’s beliefs and behavior. Joanna’s friend noticed some unusual social behavior; on that basis, she formed the belief that this person was neurodivergent, and that they had a theory of mind deficit. And that way of framing the person's behavior led Joanna's friend to conclude that there was simply no way to truly communicate with that person. This is how the theory of mind deficit view of autism sometimes looks when we find it out in the wild. In upcoming episodes, we'll explore more of the real-world harms of this view of autism. But first: where did this concept of "theory of mind" come from?

Dennett’s history of “theory of mind” measurement

Daniel Dennett: First I have to preface my explanation by saying I hate the term "theory of mind."

Amelia: That's Daniel Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist, and emeritus professor at Tufts University.

Dennett: It's an intellectualist fossil and it should have been discarded 30 years ago when I first started talking about the intentional stance.

Amelia: Dennett is now a critic of the concept of "theory of mind," because he has an alternative way of understanding how we attribute mental states to each other, which he calls the “intentional stance.” More on that later. But Joanna recently interviewed Dennett about his role in the early development of the concept of theory of mind.

Joanna: Just to clarify, Dennett didn’t come up with the concept of theory of mind. But there was a short paper he wrote in the late 1970's that influenced how psychologists tried to measure theory of mind for the several decades, actually, even up until today. This story about the origin of “theory of mind” measurement begins with chimpanzee research, then it takes a detour to Rome to watch a puppet show, and ends with dolls stealing marbles.

Amelia: Chimpanzees and puppet shows?

Joanna: Uh huh, yeah, and then dolls stealing marbles.

Amelia: Alright, well, let’s jump in.

Joanna: Let’s start with the chimpanzees.

So, in 1978, David Premack and Guy Woodruff wrote a paper titled, “Does the Chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” Premack and Woodruff tried to show that chimpanzees have a theory of mind, by demonstrating that chimpanzees are capable of deception. So they thought that if chimpanzees are capable of tricking each other, then this must mean that they’re capable of taking on the perspectives of other chimps, so they must have a theory of mind. Premack and Woodruff’s experimental set-up had some pretty serious limitations, but the paper sparked a really fascinating debate about the nature of theory of mind, and how to measure it.

Dennett: Although the experiment is under a bit of a cloud, the discussions that arose from it have been very productive.

Joanna: Dennet was one of the first people to discuss Premack and Woodruff’s paper, in a commentary titled “Beliefs about Beliefs.” And this is where the puppets come in.

Dennett: And so I wrote my little commentary, “Beliefs about Beliefs,” and in it I recounted an experience I had some years earlier, in fact it was in 1964, when I was working on my dissertation in Rome. And I was, my wife and I were up in a park in Monteverde Vecchio, and there was a Punch and Judy show going on. And it was fun, there were a whole bunch of little kids watching, intently, this classic Punch and Judy show.

Amelia: Um, for those of us who weren’t European children in the 1960s, what’s a Punch and Judy show?

Joanna: OK so, Punch and Judy is a children’s puppet show that originated in Europe in the 1600s. And most of the show is slapstick humor, and it sometimes gets kind of scary and maybe a little violent? But the show also entertains children by depicting mistaken beliefs.

Clip from: John Thursby's Punch and Judy Show Punch asks: “Where is the crocodile? Where is the crocodile?” [Children squeal.]

Joanna: In that clip, Punch is asking "where’s the Crocodile?" in his silly kazoo voice, while a Crocodile snaps at him from behind. Ignorance and mistaken beliefs are the bread-and-butter of every Punch and Judy show.

Amelia: OK, got it. So Dennett is watching the Italian children watch a Punch and Judy show, and then what happens?

Dennett: And at one point, Punch thinks that Judy is in a box, and is trying to push the box over the cliff. But the kids know that Judy is not in the box; she’s gotten out when Punch wasn’t looking. And they’re just squealing with delight, because they know that Punch is acting on a misbelief. And it struck me at the time that this is a very vivid demonstration of their capacity to understand that there could be a false belief.

Joanna: So Dennett sees the Punch and Judy show, and he observes the children squealing with delight as they watch Punch act on false beliefs. And as a result, Dennett is inspired to write a commentary on Premack and Woodruff’s paper about chimpanzee deception, and in that commentary he suggests that a promising method for measuring theory of mind is to test whether someone can pass a false belief test. In other words, if you want to know whether someone has theory of mind, you should determine whether they’re able to figure out when other people hold false beliefs.

Amelia: Why false beliefs? Why not look at whether chimpanzees, or little kids, can track true beliefs?

Joanna: Well, because being able to understand that somebody else holds a false belief requires you to set aside what you think is true, and it requires you to occupy that other person's point of view. If you can track when others hold false beliefs, then you're definitely able to take on perspectives that are different from your own.

Amelia: So a false belief test is a test for whether you’re able to track other people’s false beliefs. And if you’re able to track other people’s false beliefs, then you’re capable of perspective-taking, and thus you have theory of mind?

Joanna: That was the idea. And this is how we get to dolls stealing marbles. Dennett's idea—that we can use false belief tests to measure theory of mind—was picked up by the psychologists Heinz Wimmer and Josef Perner (I don’t know if I pronounced their names correctly), who in 1983 developed a false belief test for young children. And that led to the later development of so-called “Sally-Anne” tests, and they’re called that because they involve telling stories about two dolls, Sally and Anne, one of whom deceives the other about the location of a marble.

Amelia: You’ll hear more about Sally-Anne tests in the next episode. But basically, in a Sally-Anne test, the experimenters put on a little play using two dolls named Sally and Anne. In the play, Sally and Anne are hanging out, and Sally puts a marble in a basket. Then Sally leaves the room. While Sally’s away, Anne takes the marble out of the basket, and puts it in a box. Then Sally comes back. And that’s the end of the play.

Joanna: So at this point in the test, the researchers ask the kid, “Where is Sally going to look for the marble?” But according to Dennett, this is where psychologists began to make some serious mistakes in their experimental design.

Dennett: So they asked the little kids questions. Well, that’s not the way to expose what the kids really know, or think. What you really want to do is to get some startle or some surprise or some glee, like those kids watching the Punch and Judy show. That’s where you don’t have to worry about whether they completely understand the question; their behavior shows that they’re making the higher-order attribution of a false belief, because they wouldn’t be laughing otherwise, they wouldn’t be squealing otherwise. That’s what you want to look for in an experiment.

Amelia: Oh, so it turns out we cannot rely on false belief tests to measure theory of mind? What's the problem here?

Joanna: OK, so here's the problem.

All of those false belief tests involved asking the children verbal questions about the perspectives of others.

But the thing about very young children is they don’t always understand what people are saying, what people are asking, how they’re supposed to respond; so, when a child fails a false belief test, it’s hard to know whether that’s because they lack a theory of mind, or whether that’s because they just don't understand the questions they're being asked. And on top of that, many autistic kids have language-related disabilities; so again, when an autistic kid fails a false belief test, it’s hard to know whether that’s because they lack a theory of mind, or whether they’re just struggling with the language used in the test. And Dennett was like, “I told you so.”

Dennett: I’m glad I didn’t oversell the test in the first place. I warned them that they were going to run into these problems of interpretation, and so they have.

The intentional stance

Amelia: Back in the 70s, Dennett was skeptical of our ability to measure theory of mind. And for decades, he's been skeptical of the very concept of theory of mind; instead, he prefers a concept called the intentional stance. So, Joanna, why doesn't Dennett like the concept of theory of mind, and what's the intentional stance?

Joanna: Basically, Dennett worries that focusing on so-called "theory of mind" leads us to misunderstand how we usually think about other people and other minds.

Dennett: It's not a theory. Uh, it's a capacity, a competence, that normal human beings have. Uh, if you can walk, you walk but not thanks to having a theory of walking. If you can talk, it's not because you have a theory of talking. That particular line has been misleading people for decades. So, many years ago I put forward the concept of the intentional stance and the intentional systems that are the objects of the intentional stance. And it's a strategy of interpretation, not a theory; it depends on assuming the rationality of the thing you're trying to interpret, and it works like a bandit when what you're dealing with are things that have minds.

Joanna: Let's break this down. Dennett thinks that when we talk about "theory of mind" we're fooling ourselves into thinking that we build theories about other people's minds. But according to Dennett, that's not usually how perspective-taking works! When I try to figure out what someone else is thinking, I don't slowly piece it together by accumulating evidence and falsifying hypotheses; it's more like I instinctively attribute mental states to people. It's something I do almost automatically, without thinking about it. So, the "intentional stance" is my ability to quickly attribute mental states to others, without doing any explicit theory-building . But, Dennett thinks that because we do this automatically, we sometimes end up attributing mental states to things that don't have minds. Like, we might think that a pine tree "likes" to keep its feet wet in the moist ground.

Dennett: It doesn't work well if you try to treat a boulder or a tree from the intentional stance. Although, in fact, you can treat a tree from the intentional stance to a very limited degree. If you know that the tree “likes to keep its feet wet” (as a forester once said to me about pine trees) then you expect to find it in a place where there's water for the roots. But those are marginal cases, like thermostats and other things which can be treated as if they were little agents with beliefs and desires. But their beliefs and desires are so limited that it's hardly worth the effort.

Joanna: Dennett thinks that our overactive intentional stance is responsible for a lot of anthropomorphism---and he even thinks that it's the origin of religion! But that's a whole other story.

Amelia: So wait, this is really interesting. Dennett doesn't like the concept of theory of mind because it over-intellectualizes perspective-taking. Instead, according to Dennett, people usually attribute mental states to other people automatically, without thinking very hard. Two things stand out to me about this. First, it seems like the intentional stance can backfire---because it works so quickly, you can end up getting other people's mental states wrong, or you can even end up attributing mental states to things that don't have minds at all. And second, it's starting to sound like "theory of mind" is actually a good way of describing at least how some autistic people engage in perspective-taking. So, speaking only for myself, it's often difficult for me to quickly and instinctively figure out another person's perspective; I have to think it through slowly, often by piecing together different bits of evidence. So it's funny to me that autistic people have been described as lacking "theory of mind," when some autistic people really do build little theories about other people's minds.

Joanna: That’s exactly right, so, in fact, Dennett thinks that some autistic people practice theory of mind, in part because they struggle, maybe, with the quick-and-intuitive intentional stance.

Dennett: Let me, uh, start by drawing attention to somebody who does have a theory of mind and who uses it brilliantly, and that's Temple Grandin. And she's told us about this. She's on the autistic spectrum and has worked very hard to develop her own theory of mind, and she applies it in a deliberate and attention-driven way, very different from what we others can just do without even thinking about it. It just comes to us naturally. Um, and she proves that if you don't have that natural knack of adopting the intentional stance you can replace that knack with some hard-won expertise, which is what she does.

Joanna: So according to Dennett, "theory of mind" is a good term for the slow, deliberate, evidence-based way of attributing mental states to other people.

Amelia: I see, and so if some autistic people tend to think about other others' perspectives in a slower, deliberate way, then maybe "theory of mind" could actually be a good way of describing how some autistic people attribute mental states to others. Which makes it even weirder that researchers have insisted for so long that autistic people lack theory of mind.

Joanna: Yeah, and just stepping back here, it's clear that there's quite a bit of conceptual confusion about theory of mind in the research literature. In some psychology literature, the term "theory of mind" does refer to a quick and intuitive process; in other parts of the psychology literature, it refers to a slow and deliberate process—and we’ll get into more details about this cross-talk in future episodes. But for me, the picture that seems to be emerging is that there are different strategies for perspective-taking, and each one comes with trade-offs. The downside to the slow and deliberate strategy is, well, it takes a lot of time and effort–it kind of sounds exhausting! And the downside to quick and intuitive mind-reading or perspective-taking is that, in certain situations, it can be pretty inaccurate.

Amelia: So, it’s starting to sound like autistic and non-autistic people both engage in perspective-taking, but autistic and non-autistic people might sometimes use different strategies to think about the minds of others. So, the problem with the theory of mind deficit view of autism, and all the false-belief tests scientists used to back it up, is that it gave us a simplistic and inaccurate picture of how autistic people relate to others. And as we’ll hear in future episodes, this simplistic, inaccurate way of thinking about autism brings with it a lot of dehumanization and stigma.

Joanna: Yeah, unfortunately, some psychologists seem more focused on figuring out what's "normal" when it comes to theory of mind, instead of exploring all the different ways that humans engage in perspective-taking.

Lead-up to episode 3: false belief tests make their way into autism research

Amelia: So far, we’ve learned about the origins of theory of mind in psychology research, and how the Sally-Anne false belief test became a popular way to measure theory of mind—even though the guy who came up with the idea of using false belief tests warned us that they would cause problems. In the next episode, we dig into how the Sally-Anne test began to shape autism research.

In 1985, Simon Baron-Cohen, Uta Frith, and Alan Leslie published a paper titled, “Does the Autistic Child Have Theory of Mind?” The title of that paper, by the way, is an explicit call-back to Premack and Woodruff's paper "Does the chimpanzee have theory of mind?" and in future episodes, we will go into much more detail about how the theory of mind literature often dehumanizes autistic people. But anyway, Baron-Cohen, Frith, and Leslie used the Sally-Anne test—a verbal false belief test—to measure theory of mind in autistic and non-autistic children. Their conclusion?

Rach: “Our results strongly support the hypothesis that autistic children as a group fail to employ a theory of mind. We wish to explain this failure as an inability to represent mental states. As a result of this the autistic subjects are unable to impute beliefs to others and are thus at a grave disadvantage when having to predict the behaviour of other people. There is, however, also a suggestion of a small subgroup of autistic children who succeeded on the task and who thus may be able to employ a theory of mind.”

Amelia: With this paper, a new, influential autism research paradigm was born. Autism came to be understood as, fundamentally, a theory of mind deficit. But that 1985 paper, which kicked off the whole "autism is a theory of mind deficit" shebang? It was based on observing only twenty autistic children.

Next time: how the theory of mind deficit view of autism proliferated throughout academia and medicine—and how it continues to affect autistic people.


Amelia: Thank you for listening to NeuroDiving. This episode was written, hosted, and produced by me and Joanna Lawson. Thanks to Rach Cosker-Rowland for reading some pieces of text for us, and for her editorial feedback—we appreciate it so much. Thanks to Daniel Dennett for speaking with us about the history of theory of mind. You can read more about the intentional stance in his book titled The Intentional Stance, as well as his book Breaking the Spell. In our show notes, you can find links to the papers mentioned in this episode, as well as a link to the clip from a Punch and Judy show. Speaking of which, thanks to Jon Thursby, a second-generation Punch and Judy man, who was the puppeteer you heard in the crocodile clip from a Punch and Judy show–he runs Punch and Judy Inc, and performs Punch and Judy shows across the United Kingdom and Europe. Mr. Thursby, thank you for sharing your art with us. And many thanks to the Marc Sanders Foundation and the Templeton Foundation for their support of the show.