Bochum [Germany]: In order to communicate, cooperate or compete with other people in our daily life, we need to know what the other person thinks or feels. A new study by Dr Julia Wolf, Dr Sabrina Coninx and Professor Albert Newen from the Institute of Philosophy II at Ruhr-University Bochum has explored the strategies that people use to understand other people. For a long time, it was believed that people used the mindreading strategy to rely on other people. It meant that people presumed the mental state of a person entirely based on their behaviour. However, the new research team has argued that although people use a number of different strategies, mindreading is also one of them.
The research has been published in the 'Erkenntnis Journal'. In recent years, researchers have criticised mindreading for being too complicated and demanding to be a common strategy for understanding other people. Julia Wolf provides an example of mindreading.
"When I see someone running towards a bus, I infer that this person has the desire to catch the bus," she said.
"In doing so, I can either picture myself in their situation, or draw on my knowledge of general principles regarding the behaviour of others," she added.
However, in order to recognise the feelings, desires, and needs of others, people may take a different approach. They can directly perceive that a person is stressed based on physical features and other contextual cues. But they can also predict what a person will do next based on learned behavioural rules, without having to infer and attribute a mental state.
"When someone gets on the bus, I can predict that they will show their ticket at the entrance without thinking about what is making them do so," said Sabrina Coninx.
Today, researchers assume that people combine several strategies to understand others.
"We argue that mindreading is more than an unreliable and rarely used backup strategy in this context -- it plays a major role in social cognition," Albert Newen sums up the findings.
The authors identified three criteria that could be used to test the importance of mindreading: how frequently it is used, how central it is, and how reliable it is.
While more empirical research is needed to answer the frequency question, the Bochum-based team thinks that there are good reasons to think that mindreading is central to social understanding.
"It enables us to develop an individual understanding of others that goes beyond the here and now," explained Julia Wolf.
"This plays a crucial role in building and maintaining long-term relationships," she added.
Moreover, the researchers see no reason to assume that mindreading is less reliable than other strategies.
"All strategies have limited reliability; social cognition is only successful by combining them," said Sabrina Coninx.
The Bochum-based group, therefore, suggested that social cognition shouldn't be considered in terms of competing strategies. They assumed that the strategies interacted and supported each other, and can be combined flexibly to best suit the situation at hand.