Mind-space and individual differences in theory of mind

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Understanding the social world requires making accurate inferences about the contents of other people’s minds, being able to represent in one’s own mind the thoughts, beliefs, and intentions of another. With a long history of investigation in Philosophy, the ability to represent others’ mental states has been the subject of considerable scientific effort in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience for 40 years (where it is known as ‘theory of mind’). However, this large body of work has produced few ideas of how to conceptualise individual differences in theory of mind ability. This thesis presents a theoretical framework for studying such variation.
In this work, a distinction is made between minds and mental states whereby the term ‘mind’ refers to an individual’s complete set of cognitive systems, and the term ‘mental state’ refers to the representational content generated by that set of systems. As mental states are a product of the minds that generate them, accurate inference of another’s mental states is likely aided by representing multiple features of minds and variability between minds. Chapter 2 introduces the ‘Mind-space’ theory, which suggests that minds are represented in a multidimensional space and the probability of specific mental states is dependent on location in this space. In the Mind-space framework, individual differences in the representation of other minds, and in the accuracy of mental state inferences, are attributable to the properties of the space, the ability to locate a target mind in the space, and the mappings between location in space and mental state probabilities. Chapter 3 presents four experiments that provide empirical support for these predictions. Chapter 4 examines whether trait dimensions in Mind-space adapt following brief experience of populations with different trait distributions. Chapter 5 investigates the representation of another’s memory performance – a nonsocial Mind-space dimension – and how this may be affected by the self’s performance and metacognitive accuracy of such. Chapter 6 first asks whether there exist domain-specific cognitive mechanisms for implicit mental state representation, and further assesses individual differences therein.
Chapter 2 discusses how the Mind-space theoretical framework addresses limitations in the previous literature to studying variation in theory of mind, and its relevance for understanding human development, intergroup relations, and the socio-cognitive impairments seen in several psychiatric and neurodevelopmental conditions. Chapter 7 summarises the studies presented in the thesis, and considers limitations and future applications of Mind-space for the study of individual differences in mind and mental state representation.
Date of Award1 Nov 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorGeoffrey Bird (Supervisor)

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