Representing Minds Representing Minds: An Examination of the Association between Recursive Mental State Attributions and Executive Processes.
Theory of Mind (ToM) and Executive Functioning (EF) are two pillars of human social cognition often studied in conjunction, but rarely considered together beyond childhood. Adults routinely undertake ToM activities of higher levels, such as those that require reasoning recursively through other individuals’ presumed reasoning about others (e.g., she believes that he believes that this is difficult to grasp). The possibility of links between EF and these special kinds of representations, termed second-order ToM, is explored for the first time in the work presented herein, and documented in two ways. First, the research plan and hypotheses at the basis of this dissertation were informed in large part by a meta-analytic review of the extant literature linking EF to second-order ToM (Study 1). We employed multilevel modelling techniques to estimate the pooled effect size of over 80 correlation coefficients, extracted from both school-age children and adult samples (N = 2584). While the developmental literature provided evidence of second-order ToM-EF linkage in children, the adult findings were weaker and more difficult to interpret for a variety of methodological reasons. Hence, in Studies 2 and 3, we introduced a new age-adapted methodological paradigm, and conducted an extensive mapping of the adult capacity for second-order ToM reasoning in relation to EF. Across the two studies, we found that individual differences in both working memory and cognitive flexibility correlated with second-order ToM performance, irrespective of variance accounted for by factors
such as verbal ability (Study 2) and non-verbal ability (Study 3). In Study 3 we explored the relation between second-order ToM and EF with greater specificity. We replicated the findings of Study 2 and found that the manipulation component of working memory (but not the storage component) and the task-switching component of cognitive flexibility (but not the set-shifting component) were central to the relation. The broader theoretical implications of our findings were then discussed, along with suggestions for potential ways forward in the study of the relation between second-order ToM and EF in adulthood.