Louisa Kulke, Josefin Johannsen and Hannes Rakoczy

Why can some implicit Theory of Mind tasks be replicated and others cannot? A test of mentalizing versus submentalizing accounts


In the last 15 years, Theory of Mind research has been revolutionized by the development of new implicit tasks. Such tasks aim at tapping children’s and adults’ uninstructed, largely automatic mental state ascription, indicated in spontaneous looking behavior when observing agents who act on the basis of false beliefs. Studies with anticipatory looking, in particular, have suggested that basic ToM capacities operate from very early in life and remain in unconscious operation throughout the lifespan. Recently, however, systematic replication attempts of anticipatory looking measures have yielded a complex and puzzling mixture of successful, partial and non-replications. The present study aimed at shedding light on the question whether there is a system to this pattern. More specifically, in a set of three preregistered experiments, it was tested whether those conditions that could previously be replicated and those that could not differ in crucial conceptual respects such that the former do not strictly require ToM whereas the latter do. This was tested by the implementation of novel control conditions. The results were complex. There was generally no unambiguous evidence for reliable spontaneous ToM and no effect of the number of passed familiarization trials. Neither was there any unambiguous evidence that the previous mixed patterns of (non-)replications could be explained (away) by the sub-mentalizing account tested in the new control conditions. The empirical situation remains puzzling, and the question whether there is some such thing as implicit and spontaneous ToM remains to be clarified.