Why are there limits on theory of mind use? Evidence from adults' ability to follow instructions from an ignorant speaker

Q J Exp Psychol (Hove). 2010 Jun;63(6):1201-17. doi: 10.1080/17470210903281582. Epub 2009 Oct 16.


Keysar et al. (Keysar, Barr, Balin, & Brauner, 2000; Keysar, Lin, & Barr, 2003) report that adults frequently failed to use their conceptual competence for theory of mind (ToM) in an online communication game where they needed to take account of a speaker's perspective. The current research reports 3 experiments investigating the cognitive processes contributing to adults' errors. In Experiments 1 and 2 the frequency of adults' failure to use ToM was unaffected by perspective switching. In Experiment 3 adults made more errors when interpreting instructions according to the speaker's perspective than according to an arbitrary rule. We suggest that adults are efficient at switching perspectives, but that actually using what another person knows to interpret what they say is relatively inefficient, giving rise to egocentric errors during communication.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cognition*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intelligence
  • Male
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Speech Perception*
  • Teaching*
  • Verbal Behavior*
  • Young Adult