How do we know what another person intends?
Theory of Mind is something most conflict resolvers know about while perhaps not knowing that it’s called Theory of Mind. It refers to how a person knows what someone else’s intentions are. This belief that we can know someone else’s private unspoken intention, and judge the intention as moral or immoral, is the basis for Theory of Mind research.
Brains develop over time. A toddler’s stubbornness or teenager’s frustrations will reduce in intensity with maturity. One of the cognitive abilities that children– develop– by about the age of about four is seeing that a person might not intend the consequences of a word or act, as in “Mommy, Brian did it but it was an accident. Children will come to understand that not all acts or words are deserving of punishment. Some are, but not all. Theory of Mind entails this discernment of whether intentions are or are not blameworthy.
Brains make moral judgments about others
Toronto native, Rebecca Saxe, now a neuroscience researcher at MIT, among other researchers, has located the part of the brain associated with making those moral judgments about the intentions of other people. Rebecca tells us it is the area of the brain known as RTPJ, the right temporoparietal junction, which lights up in an fMRI when a person is thinking about whether someone intends to be friend or foe, intends to do good or ill, and intends to speak words as insult or comment. The RTPJ is the brain region used to read other people’s minds to determine their intentions.
When we think about what other people might be thinking, we think it in our RTPJ. Further, Rebecca has discovered that charging the RTPJ with a shot of magnetism will change a person’s “mind reading” ability. The RTPJ, in its changed state, will make different assessments about the person’s intention in doing the act. In other words, if you witness an immoral act or word that you believe the person intended to do or say, and then witness it again after your RTPJ is charged, you might no longer believe the person should be culpable for the immoral act.
Implications for understanding conflict patterns of blame
Observers to a conflict in action might intuit that a party’s assumptions, attributions, and inferences about another’s intentions can start or keep conflicts going. We hear the parties’ certainty that they know the contents of each other’s private thoughts. Blame is, after all, based on knowing and judging a person’s intention. While the RTPJ improves its skill from childhood onward, mind reading is still an imperfect art. Even if it were perfect, something seems to happen to mind reading ability in some conflicts. The conflicting parties get into a pattern of attributing intention to another, i.e. blame. The answer to the question “is that other person’s intention blameworthy” is often a strident “yes.”
A person in conflict will state as a fact that he knows the offense or insult was intentional. “She knew that would hurt me and she meant to–, is an example of such a theme. In mediation or conflict coaching, the parties share points of view (intentions). It might be the first time he has heard her say what she really intended. Once he hears her, he can decide if his earlier moral judgment correctly assessed her intention as deserving of blame. He may change his belief about her intention, which seems like a transformative moment. Or, she might deny that she intended to hurt him, and he may not accept the denial as true. To an outsider, it may look obstinate that he refused to believe her. Most likely, we don’t think about how his brain was wired to call those shots.
Using this information on our conflict mental maps
When in or observing a conflict, people create conflict mental maps to help understand the parties moving through their conflict landscape. A physical map that’s a fair representation of the actual landscape is more useful than a map that’s fanciful. We rely on physical maps to get us places topographically speaking, and thus accuracy matters. Mental maps, however, are indeed fanciful. They may be a cognitive representation of the conflict landscape, but the conflict mental map must move with the landscape if it is to get us anywhere in the conflict. The parties move, their fitness on the landscape shifts, their intentions alter, and so the conflict moves around our conflict mental map as a result.
Conflict mental maps have an uncertainty principle. Data about the parties, positions, interests, intentions, and desired outcomes are continually imperfect and in motion. A common conflict mental map may have to be a four or five dimensional representation of a conflict to have any chance of accuracy, which even then won’t be accurate for long. As we accumulate data during the conflict’s life cycle, we add layers to the conflict mental map so we can pick our way forward. How a party reads another party’s intention is a layer to the conflict mental map. When we get to that tempting meadow we linger, testing the misconceptions, assumptions, and beliefs underlying a party’s certainty that s/he knows of the others’ intentions.
Two conflict analyses of Theory of Mind
First, at all the stages of a conflict we use our own mind reading abilities as adaptable skills. Our conflict mental map can stay open to multiple new inputs.– As we listen to conflict stories and engage with each other, we can listen for the effects of the RTPJ on the respective narratives. When a party says, –˜I know he meant to hurt me,’ she knows that through her RTPJ. When a party says, –˜I assume it was an intentional act,’ he is responding to what his RTPJ informed him was correct mind reading.
The second use, stemming from the first, is to design ways to train RTPJs to expand their repertoire. A well-muscled RTPJ that has been relied on extensively will have the courage of its beliefs in its mind reading ability. If we want to build trust among the parties, we need to know how to talk to an RTPJ about its certainty of the others’ intentions. Our old approaches might not be the best language that an RTPJ understands. I’m following Rebecca’s research to see where she next goes with this.
Caution and Conclusion
The European model in the developed world is to separate intention and consequences. If I didn’t mean to cause harm, or couldn’t stop the harm from happening, the legal system or other institutions should listen to me and decide the lack of intention means I’m not liable for anything. This is not a universal construct. In some ways of thinking, the consequences of the action or word might be almost determinative. In this approach, if I hurt or damaged or injured you, I’m liable for making things better for you. Intention has cultural– and scientific– foundations. Therefore, we need to understand intention better, and have a vocabulary to engage people in discussing their intentions and their assumptions about other’s intentions.
The RTPJ’s use in reading other’s intentions has implications at a number of levels. It may suggest that the concepts of how to avoid bias, stereotyping, and even prejudice are problematic. Since the ability to ‘read minds’ is hard wired into our RTPJ, surely there was an evolutionary adaptive advantage to having it operate. How does one turn off the RTPJ to be impartial? Would you want to if the RTPJ is associated with discernment and judgment? Is the RTPJ more rigid with some people, or does it become so as a result of protracted conflict when trust is diminished?
These are questions that might become known as Rebecca and her associates continue to research. Conflict resolution practitioners should be interested in the answers she has so far.