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Why are there gaps between mindreading competence and performance?

Prof. Ian Apperly, University of Birmingham


 We know that adults have the competence to mindread – to represent the beliefs, desires and intentions of others - and there is evidence that at least some mindreading is performed with a significant degree of automaticity. Why, then, do we sometimes appear not to mindread successfully, and why do some people seem better at this than others?

I will argue that much mindreading occurs spontaneously rather than automatically. Spontaneous mindreading does not require explicit prompting, but is conditional on motivation and on the availability of sufficient cognitive resources. I will also argue that whether mental states are inferred automatically, spontaneously, or under instruction, there is no guarantee that this information will be integrated to guide ongoing behaviour, in social interaction or communication. Such integration also requires motivation and cognitive resources. The need for motivation and cognitive resources opens the door to predictable patterns of variable performance in mindreading, both within and between individuals. Finally, I will argue that some mindreading requires uncertain, “abductive” inferences, which are likely to highly dependent on familiarity with the situation in which the inference is made, and therefore variable within and between individuals in different contexts and cultures.