Publications of Thom Scott-Phillips

Perspective-taking is spontaneous but not automatic

Data from a range of different experimental paradigms—in particular (but not only) the dot perspective task—have been interpreted as evidence that humans automatically track the perspective of other individuals. Results from other studies, however, have cast doubt on this interpretation, and some researchers have suggested that phenomena that seem like perspective-taking might instead be the products of simpler behavioural rules. The issue remains unsettled in significant part because different schools of thought, with different theoretical perspectives, implement the experimental tasks in subtly different ways, making direct comparisons difficult. Here, we explore the possibility that subtle differences in experimental method explain otherwise irreconcilable findings in the literature. Across five experiments we show that the classic result in the dot perspective task is not automatic (it is not purely stimulus-driven), but nor is it exclusively the product of simple behavioural rules that do not involve mentalising. Instead, participants do compute the perspectives of other individuals rapidly, unconsciously, and involuntarily, but only when attentional systems prompt them to do so (just as, for instance, the visual system puts external objects into focus only as and when required). This finding prompts us to clearly distinguish spontaneity from automaticity. Spontaneous perspective-taking may be a computationally efficient means of navigating the social world.

Is mindreading a gadget?

Non-cognitive gadgets are fancy tools shaped to meet specific, local needs. Cecilia Heyes defines cognitive gadgets as dedicated psychological mechanisms (e.g. cooking and sporting expertise) created through social interactions and culturally, not genetically, inherited by humans. She has boldly proposed that many human cognitive mechanisms (including imitation, numeracy, literacy, language and mindreading) are gadgets. If true, these claims would have far-reaching implications for our scientific understanding of human social cognition. Here we assess Heyes’s cognitive gadget approach as it applies to mindreading. We do not think that the evidence supports Heyes’s thought-provoking thesis that human children are taught to read minds the way they are taught to read words. We highlight a potential circularity lurking behind this analogy, and we explain why we are unpersuaded by Heyes’s anti-mentalistic proposal for handling data inconsistent with the gadget view, which others take to be evidence for mindreading in human infancy. We conclude that while human minds may well be filled with gadgets, mindreading is unlikely to be one of them.

The Art Experience

Art theory has consistently emphasised the importance of situational, cultural, institutional and historical factors in viewers’ experience of fine art. However, the link between this heavily context-dependent interpretation and the workings of the mind is often left unexamined. Drawing on relevance theory—a prominent, cogent and productive body of work in cognitive pragmatics—we here argue that fine art achieves its effects by prompting the use of cognitive processes that are more commonly employed in the interpretation of words and other stimuli presented in a communicative context. We describe in particular how institutional factors effectively co-opt these processes for new ends, allowing viewers to achieve cognitive effects that they otherwise would not, and so provide cognitivist backing for an Institutional Theory of Art, such as that put forward by Arthur Danto (1964). More generally, we situate and describe the Western fine art tradition as a phenomenon that is a consequence of both the cognitive processes involved in communication, and of cultural norms, practices and institutions.

Commitment and communication: Are we committed to what we mean, or what we say?

Are communicators perceived as committed to what they actually say (what is explicit), or to what they mean (including what is implicit)? Some research claims that explicit communication leads to a higher attribution of commitment and more accountability than implicit communication. Here we present theoretical arguments and experimental data to the contrary. We present three studies exploring whether the saying–meaning distinction affects commitment attribution in promises, and, crucially, whether commitment attribution is further modulated by the degree to which the hearer will actually rely on the promise. Our results support the conclusion that people perceive communicators to be committed to ‘what is meant’, and not simply to ‘what is said’. Our findings add to the experimental literature showing that the saying–meaning distinction is not as pivotal to social relations as often assumed, and that its role in commitment attribution might be overestimated. The attribution of commitment is strongly dependent on the (mutually known) relevance of ‘what is meant’.

Methods for studying cultural attraction

Cultural attraction theory (CAT) describes a general evolutionary process, cultural attraction, by which the spread and stability of cultural items (beliefs, practices, artifacts, etc.) result not just from differential reproduction, but also from transformations that systematically favor the reconstruction of cultural items of specific types. In this way, CAT aims to provide a general framework for the study of cultural evolution. In a thoughtful critical analysis, Buskell questions the ability of CAT to provide methodological guidance for research in cultural evolution. Can CAT be used to develop the sort of mid‐range theories and models that often drive empirical work? Here we argue that CAT can indeed be used in this way, and we outline the methodological practices that students of cultural attraction have used and are currently developing.

Style of pictorial representation is shaped by intergroup contact

Pictorial representation is a key human behaviour. Cultures around the world have made images to convey information about living kinds, objects and ideas for at least 75,000 years, in forms as diverse as cave paintings, religious icons and emojis. However, styles of pictorial representation vary greatly between cultures and historical periods. In particular, they can differ in figurativeness, i.e. varying from detailed depictions of subjects to stylised abstract forms. Here we show that pictorial styles can be shaped by intergroup contact. We use data from experimental microsocieties to show that drawings produced by groups in contact tended to become more figurative and transparent to outsiders, whereas in isolated groups drawings tended to become abstract and opaque. These results indicate that intergroup contact is likely to be an important factor in the cultural evolution of pictorial representation, because the need to communicate with outsiders ensures that some figurativeness is retained over time. We discuss the implications of this finding for understanding the history and anthropology of art, and the parallels with sociolinguistics and language evolution.

Four misunderstandings about cultural attraction

Cultural attraction theory (CAT) is a research agenda the purpose of which is to develop causalexplanations of cultural phenomena. CAT is also an evolutionary approach to culture, in thesense that it treats culture as a population of items of different types, with the frequency oftokens of those types changing over time. Now more than 20 years old, CAT has made manypositive contributions, theoretical and empirical, to the naturalization of the social sciences. Inconsequence of this growing impact, CAT has, in recent years, been the subject of critical dis-cussion. Here, we review and respond to these critiques. In so doing, we also provide a clearand concise introduction to CAT. We give clear characterizations of CAT's key theoreticalnotions, and we outline how these notions are derived from consideration of the natural charac-ter of cultural phenomena (Box 1). This naturalistic quality distinguishes CAT from other evolu-tionary approaches to culture.