Moral norms inform mental state ascriptions

Abstract

Theory of mind, the capacity to understand and ascribe mental states, has traditionally been conceptualized as analogous to a scientific theory. However, recent work in philosophy and psychology has documented a “side-effect effect” suggesting that moral evaluations influence mental state ascriptions, and in particular whether a behavior is described as having been performed ‘intentionally.’ This evidence challenges the idea that theory of mind is analogous to scientific psychology in serving the function of predicting and explaining, rather than evaluating, behavior. In three experiments, we demonstrate that moral evaluations do inform ascriptions of intentional action, but that this relationship arises because behavior that conforms to norms (moral or otherwise) is less informative about underlying mental states than is behavior that violates norms. This analysis preserves the traditional understanding of theory of mind as a tool for predicting and explaining behavior, but also suggests the importance of normative considerations in social cognition.


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