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Monday, December 19, 2022

Socially evaluative contexts facilitate mentalizing

Woo, B. M., Tan, E., Yuen, F. L, & Hamlin, J. K.
Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Month 2022, 
Vol. xx, No. xx


Our ability to understand others’ minds stands at the foundation of human learning, communication, cooperation, and social life more broadly. Although humans’ ability to mentalize has been well-studied throughout the cognitive sciences, little attention has been paid to whether and how mentalizing differs across contexts. Classic developmental studies have examined mentalizing within minimally social contexts, in which a single agent seeks a neutral inanimate object. Such object-directed acts may be common, but they are typically consequential only to the object-seeking agent themselves. Here, we review a host of indirect evidence suggesting that contexts providing the opportunity to evaluate prospective social partners may facilitate mentalizing across development. Our article calls on cognitive scientists to study mentalizing in contexts where it counts.


Cognitive scientists have long studied the origins of our ability to mentalize. Remarkably little is known, however, about whether there are particular contexts where humans are more likely to mentalize.
We propose that mentalizing is facilitated in contexts where others’ actions shed light on their status as a good or bad social partner. Mentalizing within socially evaluative contexts supports effective partner choice.

Our proposal is based on three lines of evidence. First, infants leverage their understanding of others’ mental states to evaluate others’ social actions. Second, infants, children, and adults demonstrate enhanced mentalizing within socially evaluative contexts. Third, infants, children, and adults are especially likely to mentalize when agents cause negative outcomes.  Direct tests of this proposal will contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of human mentalizing.

Concluding remarks

Mental state reasoning is not only used for social evaluation, but may be facilitated, and even overactivated, when humans engage in social evaluation. Human infants begin mentalizing in socially evaluative contexts as soon as they do so in nonevaluative contexts, if not earlier, and mental state representations across human development may be stronger in socially evaluative contexts, particularly when there are negative outcomes. This opinion article supports the possibility that mentalizing is privileged within socially evaluative contexts, perhaps due to its key role in facilitating the selection of appropriate cooperative partners. Effective partner choice may provide a strong foundation upon which humans’ intensely interdependent and cooperative nature can flourish.

The work cited herein is highly suggestive, and more work is clearly needed to further explore this possibility (see Outstanding questions). We have mostly reviewed and compared data across experiments that have studied mentalizing in either socially evaluative or nonevaluative contexts, pulling from a wide range of ages and methods; to our knowledge, no research has directly compared both socially evaluative and nonevaluative contexts within the same experiment.  Experiments using stringent minimal contrast designs would provide stronger tests of our central claims. In addition to such experiments, in the same way that meta-analyses have explored other predictors of mentalizing, we call on future researchers to conduct meta-analyses of findings that come from socially evaluative and nonevaluative contexts. We look forward to such research, which together will move us towards a more comprehensive understanding of humans’ early mentalizing.