The Evolution of 'Theory of Mind': Theory and Experiments

66 Pages Posted: 6 Sep 2013 Last revised: 29 Jan 2014

See all articles by Erik O. Kimbrough

Erik O. Kimbrough

Chapman University - The George L. Argyros School of Business & Economics

Nikolaus Robalino

Simon Fraser University (SFU) - Department of Economics

Arthur J. Robson

Simon Fraser University (SFU) - Department of Economics

Date Written: January 28, 2014

Abstract

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'' (ToM), 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. In particular, we consider an evolutionary environment in which players interact with one another while the set of games that they might face becomes larger and larger with time. We then compare two types of agents --- a naive type that adapts to each particular game through repeated exposure to it --- as in reinforcement learning --- and a ToM type that knows his opponents have preferences and can infer these from observed behavior. We show that ToM yields a sharp and unambiguous advantage over naivete when novel games are introduced at an intermediate rate. The edge to ToM arises because a ToM type can acquire opponent preferences by observing behavior in previous games and can then use this knowledge to make the correct choice in novel circumstances, while the naive type requires direct exposure to each new game. In related experiments, we demonstrate that there is a highly significant tendency for subjects to learn preferences of opponents, rather than to learn the game. That is, we provide strong evidence for the presence of ToM in the sense of our model. Moreover, scores on standard measures of autism-spectrum behaviors are significant determinants of individual speed of learning, indicating that our notion of ToM is correlated with ToM as it is understood in psychology.

Keywords: Evolution, Theory of mind

JEL Classification: D01, C7

Suggested Citation

Kimbrough, Erik O. and Robalino, Nikolaus and Robson, Arthur J., The Evolution of 'Theory of Mind': Theory and Experiments (January 28, 2014). Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper No. 1907R, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2320670 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2320670

Erik O. Kimbrough

Chapman University - The George L. Argyros School of Business & Economics ( email )

One University Dr
Orange, CA 92866
United States

Nikolaus Robalino

Simon Fraser University (SFU) - Department of Economics ( email )

8888 University Drive
Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6
Canada

Arthur J. Robson (Contact Author)

Simon Fraser University (SFU) - Department of Economics ( email )

8888 University Drive
Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6
Canada

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