Pluralist Theory

There are two main theories in the contemporary debate of social cognition: (i) Theory Theory (TT), and (ii) Simulation Theory (ST). According to TT, we understand other minds by means of folk psychological theories. ST, in contrast, claims that we put ourselves imaginatively ‘into the shoes’ of another person and simulate the thoughts and feelings we would experience in his or her situation. Despite accounting for different social cognitive processes, TT and ST share the assumption that there is a default process that individuals typically apply whenever attempts are being made to understand other minds (e.g., theory according to TT, or simulation according to ST). Moreover, both TT and ST tend to describe social understanding as an observational enterprise, neglecting both, the dedicated role that the dynamics of social interaction may play as well as the social relationships among the agents.


Pluralist Theory (PT), in contrast, argues that social understanding in everyday life is achieved in various ways and from different perspectives. Aside from theory and simulation that require understanding other people’s behaviour in terms of mental states, PT points to findings from social psychology, which suggest that everyday social understanding may also rely on associations of behaviours with familiar agents, stereotypes, being sensitive to environmental contexts, norms, habits, and social conventions (Fiebich 2015). Social psychological studies from other domains such as economic games suggest that people may use various cognitive processes to solve a mental task but typically make use of that process, which is cognitively least effortful in a given context. PT argues that the same holds true in the domain of social cognition; rather than there being a default process of social understanding, people make use – as a rule of thumb – of those social cognitive processes that are cognitively least effortful to them in a given context (Fiebich and Coltheart 2015). From a developmental perspective, those social cognitive processes that emerge at the beginning of ontogeny in interactive settings are likely to be the cognitively least effortful ones and continue to play a dominant role in everyday social understanding in adulthood (Fiebich, Gallagher, and Hutto 2017). PT also accounts for the dynamics of social interaction in communicative practices and how pragmatic, social, cultural/normative contexts may shape particular instances of social understanding (Gallagher and Fiebich, forthcoming).

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© Anika Fiebich