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Cognitive Philosophy 101: Spectatorialist Mind Reading


Cognitive Philosophy 101 is a series of articles on Cognitive Psychology and Philosophy of Mind that aims to provide a quick and accessible overview of some of the topics currently being debated in both fields. It focuses particularly on areas in which the two fields intersect and provides discussions of some of the theories currently being put forward by some of the most important practitioners of both areas of analysis.

The series is divided into the following articles:

  1. Cognitive Philosophy 101: Can We Read Minds?

  2. Cognitive Philosophy 101: Spectatorialist Mind Reading

  3. Cognitive Philosophy 101: How Irrational is Rationality?

  4. Cognitive Philosophy 101: Emotions and Decision-Making

  5. Cognitive Philosophy 101: A Cognitively Effective Approach to Explaining Global Warming

Spectatorialist Mind Reading

In the previous article in this series, some of the main theories postulating a Theory of Mind (ToM) as a way of understanding mind reading were examined. This article will consider another explanation of the phenomenon, commonly called Simulation Theory (ST), as expounded by Goldman and Sripada (2004). ST and ToM models will then be examined in the context of criticisms put forward by Hutto (2004) of the kind of "spectatorialist" approach they engender.

Figure 1: Spectatorialism in Action

Put simply, ToM approaches to our processing of our own and others' mental states is based on the assumption that we use a psychological theory, or a set of propositional inferences whose objects are not observable, to make predictions about intentions, emotions, thoughts and beliefs. There are two main theories put forward, the Child-Scientist Theory, according to which there exists a long process of trial and error by virtue of which a child learns to explain people’s behavior; and the Modular Theory, which posits the existence of an innate mental module kick-starts into working at some point in childhood. In both cases, we acquire the ability to understand other people’s minds and therefore make predictions about behaviors.

In contrast to ToM, ST posits that access to our own mental states (including emotions, beliefs, and thoughts) is automatic and immediate. As explained by Goldman and Sripada (2004):

The core idea of ST is that the attributor selects a mental state for attribution after reproducing or “enacting” within herself the very state in question, or a relevantly similar state. In other words, she tries to replicate a target’s mental state by undergoing (what she takes to be) the same or a similar mental process to one the target undergoes. (p.198)

So there is no need to postulate a process to explain how we know that we are sad when we are sad - we just know as soon as we start feeling sad. When faced with the problem of understanding other people’s mental states, what most humans do is basically play a version of a Sims game, letting it "run" to see how they would feel if they were the ones put in a certain situation. This, crucially, does not leave us with a conclusion that is propositional (or verbal). At the end of the simulation, the solution is not "Kate is sad today", but a non-verbalized knowledge of how Kate is feeling today.

Figure 2: Simulating a Scenario

To explain this in more practical terms, let’s imagine a scenario. After a visit to a pastry shop, a father gives a delicious cake to one of his daughters, Laney, but nothing to his other daughter, Susan. Later on, Susan discovers that she did not receive a gift like her sister. If asked the question "How does Susan feel when she finds this out?", most of us would impute disappointment, sadness, or anger to Susan. Because if we were the ones in that situation, we would probably feel one of those emotions. However, let’s say that it is now explained that Susan dislikes cakes, and indeed anything sweet to be found in a pastry shop. Now, the answer to the same question about her feelings changes, because our simulation of the situation adapts to incorporate this new information. In effect, we rerun the simulation. We know how we would feel if we had not been given a treat that we consider delicious. But we also know how it feels to receive a gift of something that we strongly dislike. Even if we personally love cake and would have felt greatly hurt not to receive the same gift as our sister, we adjust the parameters of the simulation when we find out that Susan hates cake, and then we ascribe a different mental state to Susan.

It has been argued that both ToM and ST approaches are vulnerable to the criticism that the kind of spectatorialist model of mind reading they propose does not occur in our day-to-day interactions as much as they assume. This critique does not deny the idea of mind reading - it just narrows its scope. Hutto (2004) argues that in most social situations, the kind of mind reading proposed by ToM and ST models does not actually happen. Mind reading requires the subject to be separate from the social interaction, to be little more than a spectator, hypothesizing what others are thinking or how others might feel. Hutto points out that in everyday interactions, such as conversations, people have very little time or incentive to actively predict how and why others might behave in a certain way, or to imagine how they would feel if in a similar situation. In fact, people rarely seem to think before they speak. As Hutto says:

I advance what might at first seem a radical claim. It is that even in understanding the reasons for which others act, including adults, we often do not make any attribution of beliefs and desires at all. However, the reason for this is utterly banal: we simply do not need to make such ascriptions in most everyday, second-personal contexts. (p. 11)

Hutto offers an alternative view to ToM and ST, based on the observation that for most of our interactions, we have a social script that renders mind-reading unnecessary. When ordering at a café, we do not ascribe mental states to the barista - rather, we order a coffee and are on our way. Having to mind-read all day would be incredibly time consuming, and it would make most of our social interactions too involved for comfort. We accept that an apple will fall from a tree whether or not we think about the laws of physics that govern gravity. And in the same way, we accept that, after we order a glass of Chardonnay, it will be delivered to our table, whether or not we think about the waiter's mental states.

Figure 3: Is This How We Process Mental States?

Figure 3: Is This How We Process Mental States?

Hutto (2004) argues that we are socialized into understanding most behaviors thanks to being exposed to narratives as children. When caregivers tell stories to children, they familiarise them with their culture’s folk psychology. They teach the children about what makes people sad or happy, or how they should behave in certain situations. Let’s say that we are in a situation in which we have unknowingly offended or hurt someone with an offhand comment. Upon realising that the other person is upset, we draw on our store of acquired stories in order to ascertain that our comment may have hurt them. Consequently, we know how to behave. Perhaps we apologise and resolve not to make such a comment in the future. This does not require us to postulate mental states, just draw on the stories we were taught. Of course, there will be outlier situations in which our store of narratives is not sufficient to guide us - and a prime example is when we doubt the motives of other people. If we find that our narratives do not offer an explanation of someone's behaviour, we might engage in mind reading so as to find another explanation.

Hutto’s critique of spectatorialist approaches to mind reading is interesting in that it scales down the requirement to draw on a set of inferences, a theory, to predict mental states. Its persuasiveness lies in its commonsense proposal that we do not engage in mind-reading every time we speak or interact. As such, it offers a more realistic view of mind-reading than that posited by ToM or SM approaches. There exists in most disciplines a predisposition to think of people as rational agents, but this does not account for the fact that people are often guided by implicit biases and irrational emotions. We are not merely computers, drawing on a set of propositions and inferences to make sense of ourselves and others. And in this sense, a view of mental processing that allows for more cognitive freedom is refreshing.


  • Goldman, A. I., Chandra Sekhar Sripada. "Simulationist Models of Face-Based Emotion Recognition."Cognition, Issue 94, Number 3, 2004, pp. 193-213, Pubmed. Retrieved From:

  • Hutto, D. D. "The Limits of Spectatorial Folk Psychology." Mind & Language, Issue 19, No. 5, 2004 pp. 548-573

  • Rothbard, M. Power & Market: Government and the Economy. Fourth edition. 2006 The Ludwig von Mises Institute


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Giulia Domiziana Toffoli

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