Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

The pull of reality: Egocentric bias in adult theory of mind

People Involved

Andrew Lucas

Gemma Bilsborough

Project Description

This project investigates the fundamental cognitive processes underlying our ability to understand other people's beliefs about the world, specifically when those beliefs are different to our own. Human beings have been described as "egocentric creatures": even as adults we often assume that other people share our perceptions, desires and knowledge about the world. However, the exact cognitive processes that lead to such errors in adults, in particular when thinking about other people's beliefs, are currently not well understood.

Research within psychology has traditionally focused on the ego centricism of children under 5 years of age. Young children show a profound difficulty in reporting that another person has a belief that differs from current reality. Imagine your friend watches you put some chocolate in the kitchen cupboard, and the leaves the room. While she is out, you then move the chocolate into the fridge. If asked "where does she think the chocolate is", as an adult you could relatively easily reply: "in the cupboard", even though you know it is now in the fridge (your "true belief" or "current knowledge"). Young children,however, typically will reply "the fridge", as though they expect their absent friend to also share their current knowledge.

Many explanations of this error focus on the immature ability of young children to inhibit their own current true belief, or knowledge. These theoretical accounts claim that thinking about a belief that you know to be false fundamentally involves inhibiting what you know to be true, and it is this process that young children struggle with. These accounts predict that even in adults, who can report another person's false belief with ease, processing the false belief, just as in children, requires successful inhibition of an egocentric bias towards one's current knowledge.

In the last decade, psychology has seen increasing research into the processes involved when adults attribute beliefs and other mental states to other people. Understanding how adults process beliefs is of key importance for understanding not only how we as adults are able to socially interact with each other, but also for understanding the developmental changes required for children to develop these abilities. A number of researchers have recently attempted to address whether adults show an egocentric bias towards their own knowledge when processing a false belief, as predicted by many developmental theories. Research to date, however, has failed to provide a definitive answer to this long-standing question.

In this project, we will address this issue by using the novel technique of mouse-tracking. Mouse-tracking allows researchers to measure the on-line attraction to different possible responses while participants make a decision. While it has been used across a range of fields in psychology, it has yet to be widely used within theory of mind research. We will use this technique to measure whether adults show an egocentric bias towards their own current knowledge when they are asked to report the false belief of another person. Across 4 experiments, we will use mouse-tracking to:(i) Establish a direct measure of the egocentric bias in belief processing that has been claimed to be present when adults process another person's false belief.(ii) Investigate the nature of this egocentric bias in order to understand what specific aspects of belief processing causes it in adults.

This project tests critical assumptions of long-standing theoretical accounts of belief processing in both adults and children,and as such will be of key interest to psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers investigating social cognition.Furthermore, by improving our understanding of adult belief processing, in the long-term this project will also benefit those working with groups that typically have difficulty understanding other people's beliefs, such as in autism and acquired brain injury

Status Project Live
Funder(s) Economic & Social Research Council
Value £166,720.00
Project Dates Jul 9, 2021 - Apr 24, 2023
Partner Organisations 00 No Partners

You might also like

Living well with chronic breathlessness: Improving the sustainable use of supported self-management strategies Mar 1, 2023 - Mar 1, 2024
Chronic (persistent) breathlessness restricts social lives and day-to-day tasks. Breathlessness services can support people to self-manage, but there is often a gap between knowing what to do and doing it - true for patients, carers and clinicians al... Read More about Living well with chronic breathlessness: Improving the sustainable use of supported self-management strategies.