Research

Overview

My research interests all revolve around questions about how we reason about other agents. One strand of this research focuses on longstanding debates about how children acquire mental-state concepts like belief, knowledge, and desire, and how they learn to apply these concepts in social interactions (see my two 'Pragmatic development' papers). Another strand concerns the nature of the psychological mechanisms and processes involved in mature social cognition (see 'Spontaneous mindreading' and 'Beyond interaction'). A third strand concerns the way that representations of character traits (including virtues and vices) figure in our everyday socio-cognitive inferences (see 'Character and theory of mind' and 'Stereotypes').

I'm happy to answer questions and receive feedback about any of this work via email.

You can find PDFs of all my my papers on Researchgate.

Papers

Westra, E. (2017). Spontaneous mindreading: a problem for the two-systems account. Synthese, 194(11), 4559-4581.

Abstract: According to the two-systems account of mindreading, our mature perspective-taking abilities are subserved by two distinct mindreading systems: a fast but inflexible, “implicit” system, and a flexible but slow “explicit” one. However, the currently available evidence on adult perspective-taking does not support this account. Specifically, both Level-1 and Level-2 perspective-taking show a combination of efficiency and flexibility that is deeply inconsistent with the two-systems architecture. This inconsistency also turns out to have serious consequences for the two-systems framework as a whole, both as an account of our mature mindreading abilities and of the development of those abilities. What emerges from this critique is a conception of context-sensitive, spontaneous mindreading that may provide insight into how mindreading functions in complex social environments.

Westra, E. (2017). Pragmatic development and the false belief task. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 8(2), 235-257.

Abstract: Nativists about theory of mind have typically explained why children below the age of four fail the false belief task by appealing to the demands that these tasks place on their developing executive abilities. However, this appeal to executive functioning cannot by itself explain a wide range of evidence that shows that social and linguistic factors also affect when children pass this task. In this paper, I present a nativist proposal about theory of mind development that is able to accommodate these findings. Specifically, I argue that we can understand the shift in children’s performance on standard false belief tasks around four years of age partly as the result of learning about the pragmatics of belief discourse. Additionally, the pragmatic development account has the resources to account for other phenomena in the theory of mind development literature, including the developmental priority of desire reasoning over belief reasoning.

Westra, E., & Carruthers, P. (2017). Pragmatic development explains the Theory-of-Mind Scale. Cognition, 158, 165-176.

Abstract: Henry Wellman and colleagues have provided evidence of a robust developmental progression in theory-of-mind (or as we will say, “mindreading”) abilities, using verbal tasks. Understanding diverse desires is said to be easier than understanding diverse beliefs, which is easier than understanding that lack of perceptual access issues in ignorance, which is easier than understanding false belief, which is easier than understanding that people can hide their true emotions. These findings present a challenge to nativists about mindreading, and are said to support a social-constructivist account of mindreading development instead. This article takes up the challenge on behalf of nativism. Our goal is to show that the mindreading-scale findings fail to support constructivism because well-motivated alternative hypotheses have not yet been controlled for and ruled out. These have to do with the pragmatic demands of verbal tasks.

Westra, E. (2018). Character and theory of mind: An integrative approach. Philosophical Studies, 175(5), 1217-1241.

Abstract: Traditionally, theories of mindreading have focused on the representation of beliefs and desires. However, decades of social psychology and social neuroscience has shown that in addition to reasoning about beliefs and desires, human beings also use representations of character traits to predict and interpret behavior. While a few recent accounts have attempted to accommodate these findings, they have not succeeded in explaining the relation between trait attribution and belief-desire reasoning. On my account, character-trait attribution is part of a hierarchical action-prediction system, and serves to inform hypotheses about agents' beliefs and desires, which are in turn used to predict behavior.

Schönherr, J., & Westra, E. (2017). Beyond ‘Interaction’: How to Understand Social Effects on Social Cognition. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. [Online first.]

Abstract: In recent years, a number of philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists have advocated for an “interactive turn” in social-cognition research; that is, to create experimental designs that are interactive, rather than merely observational. The practical aim of this proposal – to make the experiments that we use to study social cognition more ecologically valid – is laudable. However, we think that the notion of interaction is not suitable for this task: as it is currently deployed in the social cognition literature, this notion leads to serious conceptual and methodological confusion. In this paper, we tackle this confusion on three fronts: 1) the “interactionist” definition of interaction; 2) the composite nature of social interactions; and 3) the significance of genuine versus ersatz interactivity. In each of these respects, we argue, the notion of interaction stands to obscure, rather than illuminate, an accurate understanding of human social cognition.

Westra, E. (2017). Stereotypes, theory of mind, and the action–prediction hierarchy. Synthese, 1-26. [Online first.]

Abstract: Both mindreading and stereotyping are important forms of social cognition that play a huge role in our everyday lives, but little attention has been paid to the question of how these two processes are related. This paper offers a theory of the influence of stereotyping on mental-state attribution that draws on hierarchical predictive coding accounts of action prediction. It is argued that the key to understanding the key to understanding the relation between stereotyping and mindreading lies in the fact that stereotypes often centrally involve character-trait attributions, which play a systematic role in action prediction.

Short stuff

Australasian Journal of Philosophy (in press). Book Note: Hutto, D. & Myin, E., Evolving Enactivism: Basic Minds Meet Content. MIT Press.

Encyclopedia for Evolutionary Psychological Science (2017). "Theory of mind." With Peter Carruthers.

iCog Blog (2017). "How stereotypes shape our perceptions of other minds."

Brains Blog Mind & Language Symposium (2016). Commentary on Helming, Strickland & Jacob, “Solving the puzzle of early false-belief ascription.” With Peter Carruthers.

The Conversation (2013). “Young morals: can infants tell right from wrong?”

Work in progress

A paper on the reliability of ordinary judgments about character traits (draft available upon request).

A study on spontaneous perspective-taking.

A study on attributions of intentions based on facial appearance.