Learning to apply theory of mind

Journal of Logic, Language and Information 17 (4):489-511 (2008)
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In everyday life it is often important to have a mental model of the knowledge, beliefs, desires, and intentions of other people. Sometimes it is even useful to to have a correct model of their model of our own mental states: a second-order Theory of Mind. In order to investigate to what extent adults use and acquire complex skills and strategies in the domains of Theory of Mind and the related skill of natural language use, we conducted an experiment. It was based on a strategic game of imperfect information, in which it was beneficial for participants to have a good mental model of their opponent, and more specifically, to use second-order Theory of Mind. It was also beneficial for them to be aware of pragmatic inferences and of the possibility to choose between logical and pragmatic language use. We found that most participants did not seem to acquire these complex skills during the experiment when being exposed to the game for a number of different trials. Nevertheless, some participants did make use of advanced cognitive skills such as second-order Theory of Mind and appropriate choices between logical and pragmatic language use from the beginning. Thus, the results differ markedly from previous research.

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