Folk psychology can be described as the common understanding of mental processes (e.g. pain, pleasure, excitement, anxiety, etc.), grounded in the use of common linguistic terms as opposed to technical or scientific jargon. Folk psychology and analogy are invariably linked, with both concepts having evolved as a result of the relationship they have with each other. Once technical terms are stripped, the easiest way to describe something is through references to familiar items. In this way, the union between analogy and folk psychology was inevitable.
Traditionally, the study of folk psychology has focused on how everyday people—those without formal training in the various academic fields of science—go about attributing mental states. This domain has primarily been centered on intentional states reflective of an individual’s beliefs and desires; each described in terms of everyday language and concepts such as ‘beliefs,’ ‘desires,’ ‘fear,’ and ‘hope.’ As a result of this among other intrinsic factors, the domain’s scope, method, and contributions are consistently subjects of dispute in many scientific quarters.
When perceiving, explaining, or criticizing human behavior, people distinguish between intentional and unintentional actions. An evaluation of an action as stemming from purposeful action or accidental circumstances is the key determinant in social interaction. For example, a critical remark that is judged to be intentional on the part of the receiver of the message can be viewed as a hurtful insult. Conversely, if considered unintentional, the same remark may be dismissed and forgiven. This folk concept of intentionality is used to distinguish between intentional and unintentional behavior in sports where intentional fouls are punished more harshly than ones deemed to be unintentional. It is also applied in the legal system in terms of criminal law distinguishing between murder and manslaughter. The importance of this concept transcends almost all aspects of life: with empirical studies in social and developmental psychology exploring perceived intentionality’s role as a mediator for aggression, relationship conflict, judgments of responsibility, blame, or punishment.
Given that folk psychology represents causal knowledge associated with the mind’s categorization processes, it follows that folk psychology is actively employed in aiding the explanation of everyday actions. Hilton’s (1990) ‘Conversational Model’ was created with this causal explanation in mind, with the model having the ability to generate specific predictions. Hilton coined his model the ‘conversational’ model because he argued that as a social activity, unlike prediction, explanation requires an audience: to whom the individual explains the event or action. According to the model, causal explanations follow two particular conversational maxims from Grice’s (1975) models of conversation—the ‘manner maxim’ and the ‘quantity maxim.’ Grice indicated that the content of a conversation should be relevant, informative, and fitting of the audience’s gap in knowledge. Cognizant of this, the Conversational Model indicates that the explainer, upon evaluation of his audience, will modify his explanation to cater their needs. In essence, demonstrating the inherent need for mental comparison and in subsequent modification of behavior in everyday explanations.
Recent empirical literature on folk psychology has shown that people’s theories regarding intentional actions involve four distinct factors: beliefs, desires, causal histories, and enabling factors. Here, beliefs and desires represent the central variables responsible for the folk theories of intention. Desires embody outcomes that an individual seeks, including those that are impossible to achieve. The key difference between desires and intentions is that desires can be purely hypothetical, whereas intentions specify an outcome that the individual is actually trying to bring to fruition. In terms of beliefs, there are several types that are relevant to intentions—outcome beliefs and ability beliefs. Outcome beliefs are beliefs as to whether a given action will fulfill an intention, as in ‘purchasing a new watch will impress my friends.’ Ability consists of an actor’s conviction regarding his or her ability to perform an action, as in ‘I really can afford the new watch.’ In light of this, Heider postulated that ability beliefs could be attributed with causing individuals to from goals that would not otherwise have been entertained.
The belief-desire model of psychology illustrates one method in which Folk Psychology is utilized in everyday life. According to this model, an individual performs an action if he or she wants an outcome and believes that it can be obtained by performing the action. However, beliefs and desires are not responsible for immediate action; intention acts as a mediator of in this relationship belief-desire and action. For example, an observer watching someone’s hand grasp the bottom of a basket and move their arm such that the basket is lifted off the table understands that the moving of the basket from its current position is an intentional action; a deduction that can be categorized as a reached via ‘common sense.’ Additionally, if someone desires an apple and believes they can obtain one from the basket, their belief will drive their action to reach into the basket and retrieve it. It follows that if that person actually reaches into the basket and retrieves an apple, their action is explained by this belief-desire relationship.
Schank & Asbelson (1977) described this inclusion of typical beliefs, desires, and intentions underlying an action as a akin to a ‘script’ whereby an individual is merely following an unconscious framework that leads to the ultimate decision of whether an action will be performed. Similarly, Barsalou (1985) described the category of the mind as an ‘ideal’ whereby if a desire, a belief, and an intention were all present, they would ‘rationally’ lead to a given action. They coined this phenomenon the Ideal of Rational Action.
Existing literature has widely corroborated the fact that social behavior is greatly affected by the causes to which people attribute actions. In particular, it has been shown that an individual’s interpretation of the causes of behavior reflects their pre-existing beliefs regarding the actor’s mental state and motivation behind his or her actions. It follows that they draw on the assumed intentions of actors to guide their own responses to punish or reward the actor. This concept is extended to cover instances in which behavioral evidence is lacking. Under these circumstances, it has been shown that the individual will again draw on assumed intentions in order to predict the actions of the third party.
Although the two components are often used interchangeably in common parlance, there is an important distinction between the goals and intentions. This discrepancy lies in the fact that individuals with an intention to perform an action also foster the belief that it will be achieved, whereas the same person with a goal may not necessarily believe that the action is able to be performed in spite of having a strong desire to do so. For example, if someone has the intention of going into graduate school next year, this implies that they believes that they will be able to accomplish the action. Conversely, if someone has the goal of going into graduate school, they may not necessarily believe that they will be able to accomplish this.
Predicting goals and actions, much like the Belief-Desire Model, involves moderating variables that determine whether an action will be performed. In the ‘Goal-Intentional Action Model,’ the predictors of goals and actions are: the actors’ beliefs about his or her abilities and their actual possession of preconditions required to actually carry out the action. Additionally, preconditions are comprised of the various conditions necessary in order for realization of intentions. This includes abilities and skills in addition to environmental variables that may come into play. Schank & Abelson raises the example of going to a restaurant, where the preconditions include the ability to afford the bill and get to the correct venue, in addition to the fact that the restaurant must be open for business. Traditionally, people prefer to allude to preconditions to explain actions that have a high probability of being unattainable, whereas goals tend to be described as a wide range of common actions.
Folk psychology remains the subject of much contention in academic circles with respect to its scope, method, and the significance of its contributions to the scientific community. A large part of this criticisms stems from the prevailing impression that folk psychology is a primitive practice reserved for the uneducated and non-academics in discussing their everyday lives. However folk theories represent an opportunity for social psychologists to gain insight into social behavior, contributing to the knowledge of the psychological disciplines.
There is significant debate over whether folk psychology is useful for academic purposes; specifically whether it is can be relevant with regards to the scientific psychology domain. It has been argued that a mechanism used for laypeople’s understanding, predicting, and explaining each other’s actions is inapplicable with regards to the requirements of the Scientific Method. Conversely, opponents have called for patience, seeing the mechanism employed by laypeople for understanding each other’s actions as important in their formation of bases for future action when encountering similar situations. Malle & Knobe hailed this systematization of people’s everyday understanding of the mind as an inevitable progression towards a more comprehensive field of psychology.