Folk theory of mind: Conceptual foundations of social cognition

In [Book Chapter] (in Press) (2003)
Authors
Bertram F. Malle
Brown University
Abstract
The human ability to represent, conceptualize, and reason about mind and behavior is one of the greatest achievements of human evolution and is made possible by a “folk theory of mind” — a sophisticated conceptual framework that relates different mental states to each other and connects them to behavior. This chapter examines the nature and elements of this framework and its central functions for social cognition. As a conceptual framework, the folk theory of mind operates prior to any particular conscious or unconscious cognition and provides the “framing” or interpretation of that cognition. Central to this framing is the concept of intentionality, which distinguishes intentional action (caused by the agent’s intention and decision) from unintentional behavior (caused by internal or external events without the intervention of the agent’s decision). A second important distinction separates publicly observable from publicly unobservable (i.e., mental) events. Together, the two distinctions define the kinds of events in social interaction that people attend to, wonder about, and try to explain. A special focus of this chapter is the powerful tool of behavior explanation, which relies on the folk theory of mind but is also intimately tied to social demands and to the perceiver’s social goals. A full understanding of social cognition must consider the folk theory of mind as the conceptual underpinning of all (conscious and unconscious) perception and thinking about the social world.
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