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March 4, 2004

Kim Cassidy (Psychology)
Information Processing: How Psychology Approaches Knowledge

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Kim began by posing for us a series of scenarios in which we had to make a decision (chosing a gift, recruiting a departmental candidate, following a young child around...), pointing out that all of them illustrated our need to think about "what the other person wants." Her area of research (which is known as "theory of mind") focuses on how young children learn this: that others have mental states and adjust their behavior appropriately on the basis of that knowledge. Kim studies preschoolers (2 1/2-5 1/2 years old), at an age when a lot of "theory of mind" develops. Between the ages of 3 and 4, children move from self-centered decision-making to an awareness that others have desires different from their own, and become able to predict the behavior accordingly. The "benchmark test" for theory of mind is known as the "false belief test": if you move a puppet while one child is out of the room, will a second child predict that the first will find it in the original spot when she returns?

A problem with early "desire studies," however, was that children could answer the questions posed ("what will Johnny do when his dog is lost? go to school? or look for the dog? what will he do if he finds a rabbit instead? how will he feel?" etc.) based on their own desires. This kind of "egocentric problem-solving" didn't address a critical piece of the puzzle: that desires are subjective. In order to get at this, Kim developed a series of scenarios which introduced variables between the desires of the (subject) children and the characters whose behavior they were asked to predict. She was trying to tease apart the ability to make inferences ("will a bad experience with a cat lead a child to make negative associations with cats?") from the ability to reason about conflicting desires (that is, desires different from a child's own. Care is taken, in this latter study, to assure that children preserve their own preference, not alter it in response to the scenario.) In splitting apart inference and reasoning about conflicting desires, Kim found that children could do one or the other successfully, but failed when asked to solve a problem involving both. Unable to figure out problems involving multiple steps, children reverted to simpler strategies.

Participants had a number of questions about Kim's methodology. How complicated are these decisions? Desires for foods and objects are temporarily constant, but desires for actions ("do you want to go to the zoo?") may fluctuate. Are these figures for choices rather than actual choices? Are they representational in some larger system? How "noisy" is the data? The 20% of the children who make "wrong" choices are called "failures"--but perhaps more attention should be paid to them than to the "passers"; these "outliers" might show something more interesting--and lead to framing the questions differently. It was suggested that "right" and "wrong" are not good interpretations of children's inferences--but also that the categories of "right" and "wrong" may be essential, operationally, for the kinds of tests Kim has been running. Is intelligence predictive of adroit theory of mind? (No, language ability is a better correlate.)

Kim then turned to the problems her "brand" of information processing approach encounters when solving an even harder problem: do young children understand "wicked" desires? What happens when the subject is asked to predict what another child will feel, when the latter wants what is morally evil? If the character in the scenario hurts another child, according to the protocol, he "should" be happy, because he has gotten what he wanted. But such questions only begin to sketch out the complexity of desire. What motivates one child's dislike for another in the first place? Might the dislike be justified? Children often deny that other children want to hurt them. (Kim has also been thinking about how we socialize children around such experiences: if a child is hurt in pre-school, we tell her that the other child is not evil, that the action must have been motivated.) Kim has manipulated her scenario, creating a history so that the evil act is justified; she has also experimented with the use of scenes (such as removing sand from a sandbox) that are not morally wrong, but simply breaking social conventions.

Questions were asked about the matter of causality: what is the relationship between throwing a ball and the intention of hitting a child with it? What of the desire to hurt the other, and then to make it right--the experience of remorse? What of the fear of getting in trouble? Participants shared a number of personal anecdotes: of a child who knew that Malificent (in the children's film Sleeping Beauty) was happy, because "she got what she wanted!"; of an older child who "feared" her younger sibling would be washed down the drain; of another child who repeatedly "defended her cat from intending to scratch her"; of teaching one's children that "there are snakes in the world," and that they should learn to anticipate and distrust their behavior. Questions were also asked about the "social scripting" of children's desires, and how much they are aware of this scripting. How much are children's reports inflected by what they think they are supposed to say? Is Kim sitting on a set of observations in which three-year-olds impute conflicting conscious and unconscious desires to others--and to themselves? (Should she be pursuing a bipartite "theory of minds"?) Is there an acknowledged or unacknowledged disconnect between what children want and what they think they should want? Does seeing another person injured reinforce a child's aggression? Can children project themselves into the future?

Kim seemed to us to be tracing an increasingly complex vision of what desire is--but at a certain level, is it impossible to tease apart such desires apart, to make meaningful distinctions? If one experiment is designed to show A, and other one B, one cannot necessarily infer the absence of A from B, or vice versa. A and B may each affect the system separately, but their interactions may not be simple, and causation may be multiple. Kim also sketched out a test run on "adult's wicked desires": the responses of adult subjects were similar to those of children, in saying that the character in the scenario "did not really want" what was wicked. Do we as adults still retain ways of thinking about the world that date from various stages of our development as children? Perhaps healthy socialization and maturity involves open acknowledgement of aggression, rather than hypocrisy or denial of it? Could Kim broaden her categories to measure such complexity of desire? Might she use the methodology of anthropological field study to get children to talk about their experiences, and then classify them? (Such an approach has in the past yielded very little, since children of this age are not reflective.) Kim insisted that her "aesthetic was one of simplicity"--and yet her "simple studies" repeatedly reveal the complexities involved.

Our next meeting will be after Spring Break, on Thursday, March 18, when Natasha Lee of the French Department will discuss "Knowledge and Responsibility, or A Few Questions Kant Might Have About the Information Society." In 1784, Immanuel Kant wrote, in a short article he sent to the local paper, "dare to know!" Despite writing at what was supposed to be the close of the Enlightenment, he declared that we were not enlightened yet: How to know? Who should know? These are some of the questions he invites us to ask about our age of information.

All are welcome to join in the ongoing conversation on "Information, Meaning and Noise" continuing on-line.

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