Plans, habits, and theory of mind


Human success and even survival depends on our ability to predict what others will do by guessing what they are thinking. If I accelerate, will he yield? If I propose, will she accept? If I confess, will they forgive? Psychologists call this capacity “theory of mind.” According to current theories, we solve this problem by assuming that others are rational actors. That is, we assume that others design and execute efficient plans to achieve their goals, given their knowledge. But if this view is correct, then our theory of mind is startlingly incomplete. Human action is not always a product of rational planning, and we would be mistaken to always interpret others’ behaviors as such. A wealth of evidence indicates that we often act habitually—a form of behavioral control that depends not on rational planning, but rather on a history of reinforcement. We aim to test whether the human theory of mind includes a theory of habitual action and to assess when and how it is deployed. In a series of studies, we show that human theory of mind is sensitive to factors influencing the balance between habitual and planned behavior.

Gershman, S. J., Gerstenberg, T., Baker, C. L., & Cushman, F. (2016). Plans, habits, and theory of mind. PLoS ONE, 11(9), e0162246.

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