The Mental Representation of Human Action

Cognitive Science 42 (4):1229-1264 (2018)
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Various theories of moral cognition posit that moral intuitions can be understood as the output of a computational process performed over structured mental representations of human action. We propose that action plan diagrams—“act trees”—can be a useful tool for theorists to succinctly and clearly present their hypotheses about the information contained in these representations. We then develop a methodology for using a series of linguistic probes to test the theories embodied in the act trees. In Study 1, we validate the method by testing a specific hypothesis (diagrammed by act trees) about how subjects are representing two classic moral dilemmas and finding that the data support the hypothesis. In Studies 2–4, we explore possible explanations for discrete and surprising findings that our hypothesis did not predict. In Study 5, we apply the method to a less well‐studied case and show how new experiments generated by our method can be used to settle debates about how actions are mentally represented. In Study 6, we argue that our method captures the mental representation of human action better than an alternative approach. A brief conclusion suggests that act trees can be profitably used in various fields interested in complex representations of human action, including law, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, computer science, robotics, and artificial intelligence.



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Author Profiles

Alan M. Leslie
Rutgers University - New Brunswick
Sydney Levine
Massachusetts Institute of Technology