Philosophy Phriday: Propositional Anttitudes and Social Coordination

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the forty-sixth contribution in the series, submitted by Carolina Flores.

Propositional Anttitudes and Social Coordination

We are inveterate mentalizers: we primarily think of one another, and often of other animals, as minded. More specifically, we ascribe beliefs, desires, and a whole range of attitudes to one another, and offer these ascriptions as the privileged causal explanations of our own and others’ behavior.

This is a hugely impressive cognitive skill. In fact, one might see it as the kind of skill that sets humans apart from other animals. Start by considering cognitively simple animals like ants. Though ant societies are complex and include impressive displays of cooperative behavior (more on this below), ants don’t think. The organization of ant colonies is the result of a brute causal process. In contrast, this picture holds that humans are different in kind: complex human societies are the result of individuals thinking and inquiring, and in particular coordinating by reading others’ minds.

An ant minding its own business. Photo: Alex Wild

According to this view, humans have a special place in nature as rational and linguistic animals. As part of this deluxe package deal, we have a tendency to think about the world in ways which reach their apex in scientific theorizing: we observe regularities in the world, see them as indicating hidden causes, and catalogue these causes in theories which explain why things happen and allow us to predict what will happen next. Attitude ascriptions are just one instance of this kind of thinking. We observe each other’s behavior and ascribe beliefs and desires as hidden causes of that behavior. The result: folk psychology, a proto-scientific theory that allows us to explain and predict others’ behavior. We then apply this pervasively in our interactions.

Whether or not you share with me the sense that this view is objectionably self-congratulatory, something should make you a little antsy. We don’t in fact relate to each other as passive objects in the world. My interest in your behavior is very different from my interest in the trajectory of billiard balls. And this manifests in differences between our attitude-ascribing practices and our postulation of hidden causes for physical events.

Here are some ways in which our interaction with other humans differs from our interaction with the majority of medium-sized physical objects in our environment: We ask questions, demand explanations and apologies, care about each other, trust one another, rely on others to help us, make promises, feel disappointed in one another, offer criticism, and so on. These kinds of interactions involve seeing others as responsible agents who respond to shared norms. And the ascription of beliefs, desires, and other attitudes is not just a matter of offering factual claims about causes of events: it involves adopting this sort of stance – a normative stance – towards others.

For example, if I have reason to believe that you have certain attitudes and then find these to be inconsistent with your behavior, my typical reaction is not to think ‘oh well, I must have been wrong’ and revise my ascriptions. Instead, I will ask you to explain yourself, and you will typically take this demand on board, either by ascribing different attitudes to yourself, or by distancing yourself from your behavior by saying things like ‘I don’t know what I was thinking’ and apologizing. This suggests that attitude ascriptions have normative force: they set norms for behavior that we take ourselves to be accountable to. This is very puzzling if folk psychology is just a predictive-explanatory theory: such theories don’t make demands on their targets!

An ant apologizing. Photo: Alex Wild

Further, the picture of attitude ascription we are considering has an odd starting point. It fails to ask ‘What is attitude ascription for, given the kinds of animals we are, and the needs we have?’ Instead, it assumes that humans are fundamentally inquirers, and sees attitude ascription as just the result of inquiring on a particular kind of object: other minds.

That doesn’t seem right. Like ants, we are social animals: we need to coordinate with one another to survive and thrive. We relate to each other as members of a community, not as individuals striving to understand and control passive resources. Our survival depends on our performance in social situations in which we need to implement or maintain particular relations between our actions (e.g. synchronizing our actions, or performing complementary actions in distributed roles).

Despite their lack of cognitively sophisticated abilities, ants are very good at doing this. For example, they move as a group by aligning movement speed and direction with those of surrounding others. They take up fixed roles to achieve tasks (for example, to build nests, weaver ants split the job, with some individuals holding the leaves, others producing glue, and yet others gluing the leaves together). And they use signaling to coordinate foraging: they release slow-evaporating pheromones to mark shorter paths to food and short-lived chemicals to enhance the saliency of particular sites (see Böckler et al. 2016).

Humans use similar strategies for social coordination – simple motor coordination with others nearby, fixed or temporarily fixed roles, and signaling mechanisms. These don’t require theorizing about others’ minds. But we are much more cognitively sophisticated and aim at harder tasks. We should thus expect that social coordination places more demands on us, and also that we have more elaborate tools that allow us to achieve it.

Ants engaging in social coordination. Photo: Alex Wild

This provides a new angle from which to approach folk psychology and attitude ascription: attitude ascription is at the service of social coordination, not of theoretical inquiry into the world surrounding us. Such a starting point appropriately places human beings in the natural world: we are not primarily rational inquirers trying to explain and control nature, but social animals who need to coordinate with one another, and who evolved a set of practices that help us do that (Andrews 2015). In this picture, humans are not fundamentally different from ants in this regard, though we do have extra tools.

Further, if the primary function of folk psychology is facilitating social coordination, we can begin to explain its normative dimension. To recap: folk psychology tells us not only how people typically act given certain mental states, but also how they should act. This is displayed in the fact that failures to fit expectations demand reparations from the target of the ascription. If I fail to behave in accordance with others’ expectations, I owe them something: a justification or explanation of my behavior. In contrast, a mere summary of causal regularities places no demands on the objects described. This makes folk psychology unlike a proto-scientific theory. But it makes a lot of sense if its main purpose is social coordination, given that social coordination is facilitated by the existence of norms which participants respond to (see McGeer 2007 for more on this).

We can see attitude ascriptions as a corrective device employed when our behavioral expectations are not met, frustrating our cooperative ventures. In such cases, we are led to wonder why the other acted as they did. Finding a folk-psychological explanation is important because it ensures the other remains comprehensible according to our shared norms, and thus can be relied on in the future. This fits with the extent and kinds of cases in which we appeal to attitude ascription – namely, not that often, and primarily in cases in which we are puzzled by others’ behavior (see Bermudez 2003). Most of the time, we can go on pretty much like ants do, simply relying on others behaving in accordance with social norms and their social role. But sometimes we are surprised. It is then useful to have a special corrective tool: explanations in terms of attitudes.

Counter-intuitively, then, ants are our friends when it comes to thinking about the distinctively human practice of attitude ascription, by encouraging us to take as our starting point the fact that we too are social animals. If we do so, we can come to a view of folk psychology as one of many tools in social coordination, a view that appropriately places human mind-reading in the natural world and does not exaggerate or distort the role of this practice in our lives.



Andrews, K. 2015. ‘The Folk-Psychological Spiral: Explanation, Regulation, and Language’ The Southern Journal of Philosophy 53. 50-67.

Bermúdez, J. L. 2003. ‘The Domain of Folk Psychology’ Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 53. 25-48.

Böckler, A., Wilkinson, A., Huber, L. & Sebanz, N. (2016). ‘Social Coordination: From Ants to Apes’. The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Evolutionary Neuroscience. 478-494.

McGeer, V. 2007. ‘The Regulative Dimension of Folk Psychology’ Folk Psychology Re-Assessed. 137-156.

Carolina_floresCarolina Flores is a philosophy graduate student at Rutgers University. Her interests include philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, feminist philosophy, and sending cute animal pictures. She gets antsy pretty often, but is neither antagonistic nor antiquated.