Foundations Of Cognitive Science

Theory Theory

Theory theory (Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997; Gopnik & Wellman, 1992) is the name given to a particular theory of person perception that has emerged from classical cognitive science. According to theory theory, we predict the behavior of others by employing the intentional stance (Dennet, 1987) or a particular form of folk psychology. This folk psychology is viewed as being scientific in nature; a folk psychology that consists of general, abstract laws:

  • The actions of ourselves and others are linked to internal states
    People act to satisfy their desires
  • If an agent desires x, and sees that x exists, the agent will do things to get x
Theory theory is consistent with classical cognitive science because it assumes that these general laws, and other rules, are applied to internal representations of our knowledge of other agents, and that these representations can therefore be manipulated in order to derive predictions of behavior. An alternative to theory theory is simulation theory, which argues that such internal representations are not necessary to predict the behavior of others.


  1. Dennett, D. C. (1987). The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. Gopnik, A. & Meltzoff, A. (1997): Words, Thoughts and Theories (Cambridge MA: MIT Press).
  3. Gopnik, A. & Wellman, H. (1992): "Why the Child's Theory of Mind Really is a Theory. Mind and Language 7: 145-71.
(Added November 2009)