Theory of Mind 4 – Social Beings

Most places, people, institutions and human situations around the world have developed prosocial sentiments which are well established and embedded within cultures. Theory of Mind (ToM) is the basis of these sentiments. We use ToM to co-operate with our fellows in the community (prosocial) or indeed to gain leverage over them (anti-social). We read their intentions and their needs. We respond without thinking – out of compassion, sympathy or personal need. ToM thereby becomes the thread running through our cultures. In this way each society develops its own ToM, which accounts for the lack of understanding between cultures. Although our ToM allows us to ‘read’ the intentions of our fellows within our own communities, those of adjoining communities remain foreign to us. Our prosocial sentiments apply to our own kind. They are not necessarily extended to others. With global communications and social media going worldwide however, these barriers may eventually fall. We are already able to feel empathy for those in difficulty elsewhere.

In the United Kingdom the universal health service provides the whole society with medical care. Many Buddhists (see here) and many more primitive societies such as some American Indians (North and South) or the !Kung San in the Kalahari believe in live and let live (see here and here). The British and American Red Cross, the Red Crescent, Médecins sans Frontiéres and a host of other caring institutions worldwide represent both local and global prosocial inclinations. Natural disasters bring people together in a cooperative movement, helping one another to save lives and control the consequences of the disaster as much as possible.

Within the more primitive societies prosocial sentiments might apply within the narrow confines of that society’s culture. When it comes to attitudes towards strangers or neighbouring tribes, the prosocial sentiments break down and the same sociable individuals become bloodthirsty warriors. This analysis does not only apply to the more primitive societies, although of course it may be more prevalent there. It hasn’t been very long since Europe or more recently, some African societies (Rwanda, Central African Republic – C.A.R.) were racked with antisocial hatred. Antisocial sentiments can erupt anywhere, anytime leaving chaos and bloodshed behind.

What drives prosocial sentiment or causes us to be antisocial? Wilson (2013) would bring group selection into the argument here (see my later post, Group Ethic). From an evolutionary point of view, we have learned to cooperate within groups where our individual survival is more assured than when we are alone – we are, in this way acting selfishly, even though it may look as if we favour the group rather than ourselves (see here for reference). We learn to count on our fellows within the community for help when we are overwhelmed. Our group identity develops in tandem with our own personal ToM. How does this apply to our potential for antisocial behaviour? We could think things like “if I do this, what will others think of me? Can I increase my rank, even if only very slightly, amongst my peers?” Or we may think “Does that person realise he has left his wallet/watch/car unguarded?” in which case we may take anti-social action and walk away with the wallet.

Our social motivations, governed by our egos (through ToM) are primarily engineered either to increase or to maintain our ranking in the social order, to give us sexual advantage or to protect us from adversaries, both social and physical. De Waal (2006) suggests that monkeys and apes (including, by inference, us) have two strategies governing social behaviour:

The first is to probe the social order for weaknesses and look for openings to improve one’s standing. […] The second strategy is a response to the first: conservation of the status quo.

Looking at the pictorial examples below from an experiment by Lissek et al. (PLoS ONE. 2008; 3(4): e2023) we find several examples of how we perceive ToM in both pro- and antisocial interactions:


lisseketalA more precise definition of ToM follows from the results of this experiment:

The term “theory of mind” (ToM) describes both the ability to understand and predict the behavior of other people by making inferences about their mental states, their intentions, feelings, expectations, beliefs or knowledge, and to cognitively represent one’s own mental states.

Thus we harbour both prosocial and antisocial aspirations within our communities governed by ToM. How does this play out globally?


About johnderonde

UK-based charity worker in Tanzania
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