The Evolution of ‘Theory of Mind’: Theory and Experiments

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Discussion Paper

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This paper investigates the evolutionary foundation for our capacity to attribute preferences to others. This ability is intrinsic to game theory, and is a key component of “Theory of Mind,” perhaps the capstone of social cognition. We argue here that this component of theory of mind allows organisms to efficiently modify their behavior in strategic environments with a persistent element of novelty. Our notion of “Theory of Mind” ’ (ToM) yields a sharp, unambiguous advantage over less sophisticated approaches to strategic interaction because agents with ToM extrapolate to novel circumstances information about opponents’ preferences that was learned previously. We then report on experiments investigating ToM in a simpler version of the theoretical model. We find highly significant learning of opponents’ preferences, providing strong evidence for the presence of ToM as in our model in the subjects. Moreover, scores on standard measures of autism-spectrum behaviors are significant determinants of individual speeds of learning, so our notion of ToM is significantly correlated with theory of mind as in psychology.

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