Tag Archives: theory of mind

Finding ‘Interiority’

We are the species that ponders, muses, worries, fears, wonders, hopes and ruminates.  It follows that we are also wired to make estimates of another’s state of mind based on almost anything they to say. 

We know humans have rich inner lives, and that values and concerns are  indirectly signaled to others in what we say. There is a sub-textual ‘meta-language’ that is embedded in the thoughts we express.  Expression naturally reveals residues of the mind in motion. Not surprisingly, our skill at “reading” each other turns out to be one of the crucial markers of a person’s social intelligence.  State-of-mind inferences are what make discourse possible. Our estimates usually mean that we can adjust to meet an interlocutor half way.


Our skill at ‘reading’ others is a crucial attribute, separating humans from other species, even smart robots. We might expect that Alexa, Siri and their counterparts will be able to answer truth-based questions.  But we are usually going to come up with blanks if we look for signs of some sort of inner life.

This is why interiority is such an interesting idea.

A robot can be programmed with words that mimic feelings; it can also be programmed to have a kind of synthetic past.  But ask Alexa what kinds of topics are most difficult to discuss, and we are probably going to get some version of it’s programmer’s interiority.  Shift toward the stuff of everyday human life–feelings, experiences, a sense of self–and machine intelligence begins to founder as a pretender to the human mind.

We routinely act on the belief that we are mostly transparent to each other.

All of this is a useful reminder of how much we depend upon what is sometimes called “theory of mind” to infer mental states in others.  The trigger is almost always our statements and their accompanying physical expressions: even simple cues like frowns or smiles. These are enough to turn the mysteries of another into estimates of apparent needs and aspirations. For example, if a friend tells us that someone we both know seems “on edge,” it’s entirely possible that the rhetorical signs of that state were inferred from statements ostensibly about something else. We assume there is a meta-language even in the most prosaic forms of rhetoric.  What we sense is easily passed on in similar statements like “She seems lonely,” “I think he lacks self-confidence” or “She says she’s fine, but she doesn’t seem fine.”  In short, we use the evidence of another person’s words to fill in a larger picture of their preferences and predilections.  And while this is not psychoanalysis, it is a survival skill for a species that lives in communities.

All of this means that we act on the belief that we are partly transparent to each other. We count on our inferences to build out the bonds we seek with others. To be sure, most adults maintain a screen of privacy that can seem impenetrable and not easily inferred. In addition, our inferences can be wrong.  Friends can surprise us with unanticipated feelings or reactions we didn’t expect. Even so, the daily business of making estimates of what others are thinking demonstrates a kind under-appreciated mindfulness.

And yet. . .

A Trump Caveat in Four Questions

Most of us are somewhat opaque. We keep a great deal behind a scrim that decreases our revealed vulnerabilities.  We know more of our successes than we might say. We sense our fears, but suppress the impulse to speak about them. We rein in the rampant narcissism that once flourished in childhood.

But what happens when a person lives their life in a cognitive glass house? An absence of self-monitoring can mean that elemental needs, fears and resentments are likely to be on display with technicolor vividness.  No inference-making by another is required; the person is psychologically naked.

This rarer form of what might be called “interiority at the surface,” is evident in the psychic transparency of Donald Trump. Even if we set aside his politics, it’s apparent to most Americans that obvious needs for status and affirmation float to the top of everything he says, like bubbles rising from the bottom of a pool. He’s the rare leader who has grown to adulthood seemingly unaware of the near-total display of his core motivations. To be sure, the surface bluster is convincing to some.  Yet there is a far more common counter-narrative of something amiss just underneath, a chronic vulnerability made worse because he lacks awareness and self control. Without doubt, many chronic self-promoters can be blind to their obviousness.  Even so, the problem of Trump’s externalized interiority poses stark questions for him and citizens alike:

  • Does he not notice that his words so obviously betray his needs and fears?
  • Has he never found reasons to admire the stoicism and mental discipline of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King or John McCain?
  • Is there ever an impulse to lash out that’s worth suppressing?
  • And should it always fall to ‘minders’ and citizens to worry about a leader who presents himself to the world as hopelessly insecure?

In a more usual case we will have to infer aspects of a person’s inner life, and that living with a certain degree of grace means keeping a filter in place between private resentments and public words.


Social Intelligence


A person with high social intelligence has a set of ‘antennae’ that are strong enough to  be a guide for what will give another more comfort than pain.

We are used to thinking of “intelligence” as a single entity.  But it’s not so simple.  To be sure, we have IQ scores and other measures of a person’s capacity for understanding abstract ideas and processing information.  But traditional measures of intelligence are notoriously imprecise.  The term itself is difficult to operationalize, something that must happen with any “objective” measure.  It’s thus problematic to saddle an individual with a number that is supposed to stand as a representation of their cognitive skills. It’s not unlike establishing the overall worth of a car by the time it takes it to go from 0 to 60 mph.  People put a lot of stock in both kinds of numbers.  But to do so is mostly a fool’s errand.  By contrast, there surely is something of value in the idea of social intelligence, even though it also will not easily yield to social science metrics.

Broadly speaking, social intelligence is a capacity to “read” others and various human environments with an ability to adjust to relevant norms.  In practical terms, this turns out to be mostly a function of a person’s skill in knowing how to respond in a given environment.  Psychologists sometimes talk about ‘theory of mind” as the related capacity to be able to anticipate what is going on in another person’s life, making adjustments that are more empathetic than indifferent.  We know it when we see it, as when another person has said what seems like just the right thing to a needy friend.

As the effective use of impressions that we give off,  social intelligence is best understood as a function of our ability to perform words and deeds that are a good match for a given situation. 

In actual fact, there are assorted ways we can sense another person high social intelligence: their abilities to self-monitor impulses that might be awkward, a willingness to engage even with strangers, the capacity to listen to another and respond appropriately.  A person with high social intelligence has a set of ‘social antennae’ that are strong enough to  grasp what will give more comfort than pain to another.

The phrase “social intelligence” is perhaps most clearly associated with the psychologist, Daniel Goleman, and his best-selling book under the same name (Bantam, 2006).  The book is a worthwhile study, even if its subtitle badly oversells the subject as a “science of human relationships.”  And there’s the rub.

Years ago a less flamboyant sociologist, Erving Goffman, reminded us that social relationships are predicated on functional presentational skills.  He talked about “impression management” and role taking as skills situated at the core of our relational world.  The model he adopted was less “scientific”–meaning capable of precise measurement–and more properly seen as “dramatistic.”  We are actors creating responses appropriate to a given scene.

The shift in perspective makes a big difference.  As the effective use of impressions that we give off,  social intelligence is best understood as a function of our ability to perform words and deeds that are a good match for a given situation. There is no single standard or set of norms or skills, but infinite possibilities.

This is why the dominant art form in our lives is film in all of its variations and platforms.  Seeing individuals act in the presence of others is always a potential touchstone.  Comedy generally lets us see people behaving badly, or at least inappropriately.  Our laughter flows from a recognition of violated social codes.  And drama puts us in close to see moments when lives can be transformed.  It isn’t the transformation itself that grabs us. It’s a character’s response to the problem that precipitated it. Their reactions are how we come to know the features of their character, especially their aptitude for rising to meet social circumstances fraught with complexities.

In a sense we are all critics of performances, using personal preferences and floating standards to assess the responses of others.  This more open-ended dramatic framework gives us the kind of pluralism of potential responses we need to understand the marvels and occasional disasters that unfold in social encounters.