Friday, July 20, 2007

Theory of Mind: Deception in humans and animals

Here's an interesting item by Simon Baron-Cohen on key differences between human and animal deception:
True deception assumes the deceiver knows that (1) other beings have minds, (2) different beings’ minds can believe different things are true (when only one of these is actually true), and (3) you can make another mind believe that something false is actually true. Defined in this way, one can see that deception is no trivial achievement! The deceiver needs to have the mental equipment to juggle different representations of reality. No wonder that scholars of animal behavior are wary of elevating a single instance of behavior to genuine deception, and prefer to reduce it to simpler mental processes like learned associations.

I think that his distinction is critical. The human deceiver is not merely trying to learn a trick that works; he is trying to deceive the mind of the other party. He has not succeeded unless he does that.

Think of all the "cheatin' heart" stories you have ever heard. The cheating spouse wants the faithful spouse to believe in the cheater's fidelity. If the cheater's excuse is only warily accepted, the cheater feels alarmed. Perhaps nothing bad has happened, but the other party's mind has not been convinced.

Baron-Cohen says that people with autism/Asperger's syndrome have trouble recognizing deception because they seldom concern themselves with the minds of others:
And even after twenty-five years in the field of autism, I am still shocked. A Ph.D. student with Asperger’s syndrome said to me last week, “I’ve just discovered that people don’t always say what they mean. So how do you know how to trust language?” Her “discovery” at the age of twenty-seven is one that the typical child makes at age four, in the teasing interactions of the playground.

He argues that there are some advantages to autism in his interesting essay.

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