the blog

Signs of a Deficient Theory of Mind

*This is not a new post and was recovered from the old website. I think I left it behind on purpose, but I want it back now.


Theory of mind, if you don’t know, is the theory of minds that we hold in our minds, We have general theories about certain kinds of minds that we apply to all entities of a type, and we have specific theories about those for whom we have more specific details, including ourselves. The shift from general to specific helps to demonstrate the ongoing development of ToM throughout the lifespan. As more experiences are acquired and more individual perspectives are mixed into our general theories, that which was preconception begins to take on the more informed elements of a specific ToM. Because of these experiential blind spots, everyone’s theory of mind has an occasional glitch. A glitch is not a deficit, and a person’s response to their own mistake is your first sign. A conscientious person will own it and make the necessary modifications to his general and specific constructs, a ToM deficit undermines a person’s ability to do so. He will struggle with perspective-taking and seem incapable of validating your perspective. Still, a failure to right his wrongs does not necessarily signal pathology.

The tendency to interpret minds according to an inflexible construct, pathological in the deficient, is actually quite common, being only more limited in scope among most. Blind spots and bias are the culprits here. In one experiment, researchers introduced the same mock-instructor to two different groups of people, who they later asked to describe her on a small sheet of paper. As many variables as possible were kept constant: same room, clothes, script, use of voice. The only difference is that she was introduced as affable to one group and as surly to the other.

This brief description was enough to create a bias, and at the end, each group described her as she had been described to them. The bias was arbitrary, and yet each student found supporting evidence and presented what they thought was a logical dissection of her personality to justify their judgement.

Biases due to gossip, stigma, and prejudice thus impede ToM accuracy concerning specific people or entire groups. These inaccuracies are then mixed into our global understanding of the social world, which there impede our understanding of the singular mind, and so forth. This loop of unconscious stupidity is enough reason to guard against bias, but worse is how quickly it spreads. In through the ear and out through the mouth, airborne, a new host every minute, a new victim for each host. An epidemic of bias. A cultural deficit… But still not a clinical one.

A clinical deficit will likely be established within the first few years of life, beginning as a negativistic loop of preconception-confirmation, then burrowing into walls of the personality and suffocating further consideration the more integral it becomes to the host’s identity. The physical brain probably mirrors this mental stagnation with the thinning of the it’s ToM regions (right and left temporo-parietal junctions, precuneus, and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex) or with developmental stagnation of its own, and I would expect some or all of these regions to be measurably subnormal.

These deficits are likely caused by any number of adverse parenting styles, especially those which punish emotional displays and expressions of need, so that the toddler who still has little identity beyond the present impulse is taught not to be himself, and later cannot grasp what it means for anyone to be a mind. Conversely, overly permissive or absent parenting might give way to a disproportionate weighing of minds, so that other people are considered less self than the child, and worth less consideration.

This is all speculative and nothing I just said, aside from specific statements of fact, is pulled from any academic source. So be impressed, and take it with a grain of salt. As for this next part, it is even less learned, and is extrapolated almost entirely from a lifetime of experience with narcissistic attachment figures. Do with it what you will.

1. Lack of Self Awareness

We derive much of our theory of mind from the understanding of our own. We cannot understand well that which we have not encountered, so a person who seems to have little self awareness will have deficits in his ToM.

2.Difficulty With Psychological Cause and Effect

A lack of self awareness shows up in a variety of ways, beginning with the metered disclosure of personal history. Usually, a person’s life story is retold as a series of related events which have helped form who they are now, but the ToM deficient is rarely aware of what he is, and is certainly not sure why he is that way. His past lacks significance for his present and, far from the novella most people provide, the snippets he shares will be singular and entertaining rather than cohesive and explanatory. Then, he will respond to the life stories of others with indifference, and often to their pain the same way.

While ToM deficits go hand in hand with a lack of empathy, they are not the same thing. If the person with a stunted ToM could understand psychological cause and effect, he would feel empathy, and close encounters with pain trigger within him a compassionate response, same as anyone. He simply cannot appreciate the causal relationship between a persons experiences, emotions, and behaviors in one moment, nor how they influence the whole dynamic exchange in the next.

This lends them a no-nonsense attitude that easily becomes abusive. They expect the impossible, and respond to their disappointment with reality by belittling the person who fails to produce the outcome he expects.

3. Gaslighting

Because they cannot see themselves clearly, they will deny all of their own misbehavior, even if the accusation concerns something that happened only moments ago and is plainly true. I suspect that in extreme cases, they may not remember their transgressions or may not be aware of themselves in the offending moment. When they do know they’re lying, they persist, despite your dumbfounded screams, in the earnest hope that you will believe them and make their version true.

Gaslighting probably begins as a punishment-diversion tactic, adaptive for a young child in a hostile household. If you can’t prove it, it didn’t happen. It need not have always been successful to have been successful often enough to merit long term deployment. A number of manipulative tactics often accompany this one, which supports my hostile-household theory of stunted development. The helpless child would have nothing to resort to but mind control, and with time they would become very skilled. Instead of learning how to live in a prosocial way, one self among equal selves, he would form the bit of identity he had around the behavior of the unpredictable parent, increasing with her unpredictability his own repertoire of manipulative diversions.

Two more prevalent techniques are blame-shifting and playing the victim, the latter of which turns into the super fun smear campaign when the ToM deficient person gains power.

4. Unpredictable Treatment of Others

Even aside from the behavior modeling implied, this is likely to be true based solely on the fact that their theory of mind lacks cohesion. They have poorly integrated identities and typically struggle with object permanence, or with seeing a person as a defined entity of themselves rather than as stimuli in any given moment. Thus, they respond enthusiastically to other people as environmental variables, freaking out when someone is thought to be in the way, laughing hysterically with the same person moments later.

Anyway, I’m fucking bored with this particular post now, and I think that about covers it anyway, so I’m out. I’ll write something fun before I pass out, maybe. Work early. Sorry I fucked off today.