The Theory of Mind in Fiction by Christopher G. Moore

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How do we understand another person’s perspective? To read another’s intentions, beliefs, desires and imagination is necessary in order to predict behavior. This ability to predict requires an element of empathy but that isn’t sufficient. It is necessary also to have a Theory of Mind about another person. We don’t often step back and ask ourselves how social, economic and political relationships depend on assessing the mental state of others.

There has been a great deal of international crime fiction in recent years. How should we judge fiction has been written by authors, who are not native to the culture? My answer is it depends on whether the book is premised on accurate representations of the reality of people inside that culture. That would include the four of us who write weekly on this blog.

The question in the back of a reader’s or a reviewer’s minds is whether the author has accurately represented the theory of mind in the culture where the novel is set. Most of the time, neither reader nor reviewer is in a good position to make that assessment. I am assuming, of course, that the theory of mind is different from culture to culture. While there is much common ground between people in various cultures, it must be said that cultural difference are important in assessing the intention of others inside that culture.

In a tense situation where tempers are raw, a smile in Thailand may not be a signal of appeasement. The offer of a wai from a hotel clerk doesn’t carry the same intention as a wai offered to a mother, a monk, a boss, or a general. Without a theory of mind that takes into account the language, history and culture of another person, it is possible to make mistakes. Even when you study the culture for years you can make mistakes. I make them. And I suspect that I am not alone. A gesture, expression or words that are fully comprehensible and predictable inside your own culture may fail you inside another culture.

We are creatures of habit. And our habitual ways of assessing another’s theory of mind is often done without much introspection. That’s where empathy comes into play. But most of us aren’t that reflective or critical; we float on automatic pilot, guided by inferences and attributions embedded in our mental processes. Once that happens, without empathy and introspection, the actual reality of how the other’s person’s beliefs and desires are different in subtle and not so subtle ways takes more effort, because the implications are more complex and the outcomes less certain. We like shortcuts. You can often tell reading a book set in another country (especially when you know something about that country) whether the writer has taken the shortcut on the literary expressway.

It is common that books are written just as investments are made and wars are fought by people who have made decisions based on the theory of mind of others. Many times, though, the premise of the other person’s theory of mind lacks an understanding of the other minds, which have different values and goals. Perhaps the theory of mind that assumes that Afghan villagers wish to have representative democracy won’t greet such a system with incomprehension and mystery. What makes one group of people laugh until they are in tears requires an understanding of how their sense of humor is shaped by their language and culture. Watching Thai TV is more fun if you are watching it with a Thai. They know when to laugh, when to cry and when to cry foul where, for the average foreigner, the intentions of the characters resonant in a different way such confusion and boredom. The cultural applause sign doesn’t flash for them.

It is a rare entertainer whose act transcends culture. Super heroes work the best because the theory of mind is one where the hero isn’t restrained by the usual forces that work on mere mortals. The more human and local the story and character, the more difficult it is to translate into another language and culture. Translators pull out theirs into another theory of mind.

Taboos, superstition, social structures, the role of men and women, and sexuality are cultural constructs—the concrete and steel of the mind. People assume their beliefs are universal because they are mostly sealed off in communities where that theory of mind works most of the time. It is only outside that community that the native theory of mind breaks down. We draw moral judgments based on the actions of others. But the person so judged may have done something morally acceptable in his culture such as an honor killing of sister but represents morally reprehensible conduct to someone from a different culture.

Emotional communication even within a culture can be difficult and uncertain. Add the cultural element and such communication becomes a minefield. From an early age we learn to map other people’s emotional states. As children we learn the ABCs of anger, disgust, hate, jealousy and envy. These experiences form an emotional language that we learn to read in others.

When it comes to understanding a foreigner’s emotions and actions, most people are, in effect, autistic. They have a difficulty in understanding that a person in another culture will see things from a perspective different from their own. It is a theory of mind impairment and one that can easily work in creative works such as novels, plays and films. How do we know the author is showing us a perspective of Thailand, Israel, Turkey or Iraq other than simply a projection of their own perspective from their home culture?

Scarcity and the allocations of scarce resources are universal in nature. Start with money and sex. The way people in any society deal with the relative scarcity of money and sex and how they deal with crime when someone decides to take a short cut is often local and culturally based. Hierarchies are erected to allocate scarce resources. Each system of hierarchies believes in its superiority. International companies doing business in other cultures can miscalculate the importance and role of the local hierarchies in influencing the intention of the local partner. Information access is another concept heavily influenced by culture. The Chinese view about information access and the American view illustrate two different theories of mind trying to understand and cope with the other.

A theory of mind is judged by the competence in judging the mental states of others. We look to predict the intentions of others by understanding the beliefs and desires that are used to form such intentions. It is also how we measure, what we choose to measure and what we conclude from the measuring process. We need to get inside the mind of another to understand the source of beliefs, vanities, hunches, beliefs, wishes, desires—the place where emotions are formed.

Emotion formation of another is cultural at core. A theory of mind takes into account another person’s likely emotional response. The role of a mother, power of authority figures and structure, what is rude, what is polite, what is left unsaid, what can be said, when deference is required, and when someone is insulted, threatened, or made uncomfortable require an understanding of how this aspect of mind is created within a culture. The basis of co-operation also requires an accurate understanding of how other people value, create, protect and fund co-operation.

There is a tradition of pundits saying that foreigners can’t understand how Thais think. In other words, no foreigner could form a theory of mind about people who were raised in Thai culture. That is, in itself, an interesting theory of mind, suggesting that all non-Thais are basically rendered autistic when it comes to understanding how Thais form intentions and the true nature of their beliefs.

We’ve never limited in a time with a greater capacity for communication. But the ability to communicate hasn’t kept up with the facilities and technologies that allow for instaneous communication. It may be that we evolved with a time lag built in. We can only begin to comprehend a theory of mind about people inside our own culture, and now with many cultures accessible at a keystroke most people simply don’t have the time or inclination to do the heavy work of figuring out how others think and form their intentions.

One reason to read international crime fiction is to find a voice that reliably takes the reader into minds that have been shaped by different cultural forces. To understand how such people think, their morality, their emotions, and their beliefs becomes the first step to avoid the trap that one theory of mind fits all. So far I have been lucky to have readers and reviewers my attempts to examine, understand and illustrate the theory of mind of Thais. This mental framework examination works like a back story behind the obvious one that rolls out like many other novels.

My own bias is that without such introspection, an author may have created an entertainment but such a book doesn’t open any doors for the main reason I open a book—I want to know (without being lectured) about how the culture influences for social relationships and the way culture influences a character’s choices. We like to read a book, which offers up a version of your own theory of mind; it is like comfort food. Exotic food, like exotic culture is an acquired taste. The only problem is what forces have shaped our mind doesn’t always correspond to the forces that shaped the mind of people, their emotions and actions, living in other cultures.

Reading and then accurately writing about the mental state of others has always been difficult. Travel and communications were not easy until recently. But modern communications has made it seem that globalization has created a Global Theory of Mind. In a way, that is true. People communicate on a frequent base beyond their borders in ways their parents and grandparents could never have dreamt possible. But despite such communication, the basic limits remain. People still have different ways of attributing intention, displaying emotions, and acting that are products of their culture. Perhaps that will one day give way to a more general theory of mind. If so, that day is a long ways into the future.

You can’t walk through a wet market on a Friday morning in Bangkok on the Internet. You can’t join a group of Thais during their lunch break. Or you can’t talk to the Thai mystics who read cards on the sidewalk. There are hundreds of these small things that still require boots on the ground, time on the street and inside the cafes, and total immersion that is beyond the capability of our best software and Internet resources. Though, it is highly probable that nestled in deep time simulation programs will recreate any market, street, bar, restaurant, or public square, and inhabit it with people with a theory of mind appropriate to that time and place. Meanwhile, we toil on gathering theories of minds the only way we can—through observation and introspection and empathy.

I want to know something about the mental states of the people I write about. I don’t want my characters to become abstractions or projections. How to do that needs a combination of curiosity and diligence, and a love for the search of the underlying building blocks of perception and action. At some point in this process, I know I am getting closer to the truth when I begin to understand what I a Thai woman once told me, that she didn’t believe in ghost but admitted to being afraid of ghosts.

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