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There are two accounts of folk-psychology – the first, which is external, defines folk psychology as the theory of mind implicit in our everyday talk about mental states, and the second is internal, which is a theory of human psychology which is represented in the mind-brain and which underlines our everyday capacity to predict, interpret and explain the behaviour of ourselves and others.


The internal account also includes concepts such as beliefs (Max thinks he can study at the library) and desires (Max wants to pass a course). On this view, supported mainly by theory-theorists, folk psychology is the representation of the knowledge that mediates between our observations of the behaviour of others in different circumstances, and our predictions and explanations of that behavior. This position is called the theory-theory because it is a theory about the existence of a theory that explains folk psychology.



The theory-theory (TT) of folk-psychology is an absolute premise that is used to predict, explain, and interpret others’ minds. This theory is developed automatically and innately, though it is discovered through social interactions (Carruthers 1996). The cognitive mechanism involved in theory-theory is folk science (which means knowing-that), reasoning, and observation.


Furthermore, theory-theory holds an allocentric, objective perspective; that is to say, it observes the target agent’s thoughts through a third-person perspective. The predictions made through the theory-theory are derived from the knowledge of a certain situation and a certain agent. To explain or to interpret someone’s action under theory-theory, one would subsume the agent’s action under this same knowledge of the situation and the agent. Moreover, to interpret an agent through the theory-theory, one would deduce beliefs and desires by subsuming the agent’s behaviour under the intuitive theory. Theory-theory also produces interpretations of evidence. For example, I think that the computer is in the study room – this is an interpretation of evidence because I have seen the computer in the study room.



To interpret someone using theory-theory is to use knowledge or information about psychological generalizations – for example, we know that Max went to work to earn money, and Max knew that to earn money he must go to work. We can understand this because of a basic postulate of the theory-theory called the Central Action Principle, which states that ‘if somebody desires X and believes that A-ing is a means of achieving X, then, ceteris paribus, he will do A’ (Stueber 2006, 110).



According to theory-theorists, children acquire the theory of mind progressively over time. This process is somewhat like scientific evolution because as children grow, they acquire a more complex theory that supersedes the precedent theory that they had in their minds in order to interpret others.



All in all, the theory-theory of folk-psychology is explanatory, in the sense that it explains why an agent did what he did. Moreover, it is predictive, because it predicts what the agent will do. Furthermore, it is systematic, because it can be applied generally, and it is coherent. Lastly, it is abstract because beliefs and desires can explain an agent’s actions, and it can be verified, revised and even abandoned.






  •  Carruthers, P. (1996). Simulation and self-knowledge: a defence of the theory-theory. In P. Carruthers & P.K. Smith, Eds. Theories of theories of mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  •  Stueber, K.R. (2006). Rediscovering Empathy: Agency, Folk Psychology, and the Human Sciences. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press


- Maheen Khatri, University of Toronto

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