The Naïve Utility Calculus: Computational Principles Underlying Commonsense Psychology

Trends Cogn Sci. 2016 Aug;20(8):589-604. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2016.05.011. Epub 2016 Jul 4.


We propose that human social cognition is structured around a basic understanding of ourselves and others as intuitive utility maximizers: from a young age, humans implicitly assume that agents choose goals and actions to maximize the rewards they expect to obtain relative to the costs they expect to incur. This 'naïve utility calculus' allows both children and adults observe the behavior of others and infer their beliefs and desires, their longer-term knowledge and preferences, and even their character: who is knowledgeable or competent, who is praiseworthy or blameworthy, who is friendly, indifferent, or an enemy. We review studies providing support for the naïve utility calculus, and we show how it captures much of the rich social reasoning humans engage in from infancy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Calculi
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Motivation
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Perception*
  • Thinking / physiology*