A formal model of interpersonal inference

Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 Mar 25;8:160. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00160. eCollection 2014.


Introduction: We propose that active Bayesian inference-a general framework for decision-making-can equally be applied to interpersonal exchanges. Social cognition, however, entails special challenges. We address these challenges through a novel formulation of a formal model and demonstrate its psychological significance.

Method: We review relevant literature, especially with regards to interpersonal representations, formulate a mathematical model and present a simulation study. The model accommodates normative models from utility theory and places them within the broader setting of Bayesian inference. Crucially, we endow people's prior beliefs, into which utilities are absorbed, with preferences of self and others. The simulation illustrates the model's dynamics and furnishes elementary predictions of the theory.

Results: (1) Because beliefs about self and others inform both the desirability and plausibility of outcomes, in this framework interpersonal representations become beliefs that have to be actively inferred. This inference, akin to "mentalizing" in the psychological literature, is based upon the outcomes of interpersonal exchanges. (2) We show how some well-known social-psychological phenomena (e.g., self-serving biases) can be explained in terms of active interpersonal inference. (3) Mentalizing naturally entails Bayesian updating of how people value social outcomes. Crucially this includes inference about one's own qualities and preferences.

Conclusion: We inaugurate a Bayes optimal framework for modeling intersubject variability in mentalizing during interpersonal exchanges. Here, interpersonal representations are endowed with explicit functional and affective properties. We suggest the active inference framework lends itself to the study of psychiatric conditions where mentalizing is distorted.

Keywords: Bayesian; active inference; evidence; free energy; interpersonal; self-organization; surprise; value.