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Failures in theory of mind [Jun. 17th, 2013|12:04 pm]
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(Long time, no post, etc. Maybe one of these days I'll go into detail about what I've been up for the last semester or so. Also, the key insight that led to this post is due to my friend N)

A friend of mine, B, used to suffer from terrible road rage. His girlfriend, L, felt so uncomfortable driving with him when he was like this that she put considerable time and effort into working out what was going on, since B is not typically an angry guy. Eventually, she realised that what was going on was that B wasn't seeing the other cars as vehicles containing living people with plans and emotions of their own, but as potential obstacles that sometimes moved in unpredictable ways to block his path.

One of my favorite bloggers had a very well-received post about a certain type of guy who approaches women like they're vending machines for sex, where he just needs to perform the right moves and say the right things, and lo and behold he'll get laid. When this doesn't happen he gets angry and bitter and talks about how he's such a Nice Guy but girls still aren't interested in him.

On hearing B's road rage story, it occurred to me that I have a similar failure mode when I'm socially anxious, where I treat the people around me as mysterious black boxes that require that I perform esoteric nonsensical social rituals in order to appease and become accepted by them, where any deviation from the rituals will be punished with immediate scorn and/or rejection*. Unsurprisingly, this way of thinking does not particularly aid me in my efforts to be liked and accepted.

In a post about abusive partners, one of the comments highlighted the way that the abused blame themselves, searching for the thing they did to deserve the punishment. When they think they've found it, they tell themselves that if they just stop doing that particular thing, their partner will stop abusing them. Inevitably the abuse happens again, because the thing they did that first time was at best a convenient excuse, at worst completely uncorrelated with the abusive behavior.

In all of these stories, a person with otherwise completely functional theory of mind is put in a stressful situation, and in response they have lost their ability to think about what the other people in the interaction believe and desire. I'm not sure that calling it a failure in theory of mind is quite correct though, since the classical failure mode for theory of mind is to assume that everyone shares the same information/desires/beliefs that you do, as opposed to the situations here where the failure seems to involve denying/forgetting that the other people in the interaction have meaningful internal states at all. I could call it objectification, except that the connotations of the term have drifted so far away from the strict meaning that it's now completely useless for trying to describe anything else.

Does anyone know if there's a better name for this phenomenon? Or if there's any literature on it? So far I'm drawing a blank, but it seems like an area that ought to have been studied. If people lose their ability to model others when they're under stress, it seems like this would have huge implications for a lot of subfields.

* Yes, I know that's an exaggeration of what would actually happen, but you're welcome to try convincing my brain of this when I'm feeling socially anxious

[User Picture]From: sashajwolf
2013-06-18 09:28 am (UTC)
Hi! Andrew Ducker pointed me at this post. It sounds like it could be a similar effect to the one discovered in this study, which was put down to a failure to activate the medial prefrontal cortex. I think "failure of theory of mind" is perfectly accurate, though - theory of mind isn't just about recognising what's going on in someone else's mind, it's also about recognising that they have a mind in the first place. Sometimes that's described as a precursor to true theory of mind, but not always.

I think this kind of failure is also recognised, at least by implication, in Kant's second formulation of the categorical imperative, which to him is the foundation of ethics: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end."
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[User Picture]From: erratio
2013-06-19 01:24 pm (UTC)
Huh, that's fascinating. It seems to suggest that when you expect hostility (ie. low warmth) from people, you're more likely to stop viewing them as people. I'll have to think about that a bit.
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[User Picture]From: zornhau
2013-06-18 02:06 pm (UTC)
I see this in other parents in shared public spaces. To me it looks like awfully convenient learned behavior.
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[User Picture]From: strawberryfrog
2013-06-18 09:03 pm (UTC)
"used to suffer from terrible road rage .. is not typically an angry guy. ... wasn't seeing the other cars as vehicles containing living people with plans and emotions of their own"

I'm not sure that adds up. People generally don't get angry at inanimate objects, or not nearly as much as they do at people. There's no point because non-living things *don't* have plans and emotions to influence with anger. Shaking your fist at an avalanche is understood as a symbolic gesture, not the same thing as shaking our fist at a person.
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[User Picture]From: andrewducker
2013-06-18 09:47 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: khbrown
2013-06-18 11:23 pm (UTC)
Like Andrew I would disagree. I have not been violent towards another person since I was 16, but sometimes lose control with things - cracking my bedroom door by punching it, stomping on a laptop etc.
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[User Picture]From: strawberryfrog
2013-06-19 09:30 am (UTC)
Ah. That may itself be a style of thinking that is a precondition for the behaviour described.
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[User Picture]From: erratio
2013-06-19 01:17 pm (UTC)
Seconding the other people in the thread that there are definitely people who are capable of getting angry at inanimate objects (my brother is one of them. I guess B is another).

There's also probably some generalised rage going on - by treating drivers as inanimate, B was reducing his ability to predict their movements, which then caused him lots of frustration because he had to compensate for these potentially-dangerous random objects in his environment.
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[User Picture]From: strawberryfrog
2013-06-19 01:36 pm (UTC)
Acting out at an inanimate object does not always mean anger at the inanimate object, in fact it can be a textbook example of displacement, i.e. " Some people punch cushions when they are angry at friends"
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[User Picture]From: xuenay
2013-06-19 02:02 pm (UTC)
I think there's a category between "human" and "inanimate object" - call it "subhuman" - where you acknowledge that somebody is an animate object, but not that they'd have (full) moral worth. I'm reminded of the claim that being on the losing side of a battle and turning to flee is dangerous, with one of the reasons being that the enemy has an easier time killing you once they only see your back and not your face (which would remind them of your humanity).

People also seem to routinely designate members of groups such as criminals or even political opponents as subhuman (even if they don't quite say it out loud), and there is Peter Singer's argument that we originally only cared about a small group of close friends, with the "circle of altruism" then gradually expanding to the level of the nation and beyond.


Edited at 2013-06-19 02:07 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: strawberryfrog
2013-06-19 03:25 pm (UTC)
I think that this is the more likely and plausible case.
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