Seeing things as people: anthropomorphism and common-sense psychology

Watt, Stuart Neil Kennaway (1998). Seeing things as people: anthropomorphism and common-sense psychology. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis is about common-sense psychology and its role in cognitive science. Put simply, the argument is that common-sense psychology is important because it offers clues to some complex problems in cognitive science, and because common-sense psychology has significant effects on our intuitions, both in science and on an everyday level.

The thesis develops a theory of anthropomorphism in common-sense psychology. Anthropomorphism, the natural human tendency to ascribe human characteristics (and especially human mental characteristics) to things that aren't human, is an important theme in the thesis. Anthropomorphism reveals an endemic anthropocentricity that deeply influences our thinking about other minds. The thesis then constructs a descriptive model of anthropomorphism in common-sense psychology, and uses it to analyse two studies of the ascription of mental states. The first, Baron- Cohen et al. 's (1985) false belief test, shows how cognitive modelling can be used to compare different theories of common-sense psychology. The second study, Searle's (1980) `Chinese Room', shows 'that this same model can reproduce the patterns of scientific intuitions taken to systems which pass the Turing test (Turing, 1950), suggesting that it is best seen as a common-sense test for a mind, not a scientific one. Finally, the thesis argues that scientific theories involving the ascription of mentality through a model or a metaphor are partly dependent on each individual scientist's common-sense psychology.

To conclude, this thesis develops an interdisciplinary study of common-sense psychology and shows that its effects are more wide ranging than is commonly thought. This means that it affects science more than might be expected, but that careful study can help us to become mindful of these effects. Within this new framework, a proper understanding of common-sense psychology could lay important new foundations for the future of cognitive science.

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