Hal Odden, Theory of Mind, and Human Development

Harold Odden is another presenter at our Encultured Brain session. His paper is on Ethnopsychologies and Children’s Theory of Mind: Finding Common Ground between Anthropology, Psychology, and Neuroscience. So the abstract:

Developmental psychologists have argued that successful negotiation of everyday social interactions rests on having a “theory of mind,” an understanding of how others’ behaviors can be understood in terms of internal mental states, such as beliefs, desires, and intentions. Substantial research efforts over the past 30 years have been directed at understanding the trajectory and psychological impact of the development of a theory of mind in young children. A consistent thread in this work has been questions regarding the relative role of contextual features in the ontogeny of theory of mind. Recent research has pointed to ways by which different aspects of the child’s developmental milieu, such as social ecology and the use of mental-state language, may indeed have an appreciable impact. This attempt to situate this developmental process in a social and cultural context should be met with enthusiasm by psychological anthropologists, who have long held an interest in local models of self, emotion, and psychology across cultures. Further impetus for a renewed interdisciplinary conversation has been generated by recent discoveries and methodological advancements in neuroscience. In particular, work on mirror neuron systems suggests them to be possible neural mechanisms underpinning theory of mind and other key social cognitive processes such as imitative learning. This paper will discuss some of the possible linkages to be drawn in these three fields of research, and argue that there are great opportunities for developing a more robust understanding of theory of mind and ethnopsychologies through an interdisciplinary approach.

Hal is at the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (or IPFW). We started grad school at Emory together, where Hal did his doctoral research on children’s learning in Samoa. Here is the abstract to his thesis (which you can download in all its glory here).

This doctoral dissertation examines the processes of cultural learning by which Samoan children (0-12 years of age) come to understand local concepts of hierarchy, social rank, and respectful behavior. This is a particularly important domain of cultural knowledge in contemporary Samoa as titular chiefs exercise wide-ranging social, political and economic powers in their families and villages, and concerns with relative rank organize social interactions between all members of society. Consequently being able to understand local models of hierarchy is an essential component of children’s developing social and cultural competence.

This dissertation documents how children are socialized to use observational, imitative, and participatory learning as primary modes of social learning, as they adapt to familial demands and practices, prevailing ethnotheories of child development, and other aspects of their developmental niche. The ways in which social learning is structured in this context are compared with predictions from Vygotskian “cultural-historical” activity theory to demonstrate the analytic necessity of attending far more to the socio-cultural context in which children develop to more adequately understand the nature and full range of variation in developmental processes.

Hal’s new research in Samoa combines his interest in children’s socialization and development with a concern for their well-being, with a particular focus on mental and behavioral health. He plans to examine how variations in biological, psychological and sociocultural processes (e.g. children’s temperament, attachment relationships, household organization and dynamics, and social rank) interact at the level of the individual to generate diversity in developmental trajectories and outcomes.

Hal is co-author with Tara Callaghan and Phillippe Rochat of the paper Synchrony in the Onset of Mental-State Reasoning: Evidence From Five Cultures (pdf), which examines mental-state reasoning as a universal milestone in child development (see this press release). He also has a paper in Educational and Child Psychology that argues that observational learning is an important and culturally promoted form of social learning in Samoa.

If you want to get in touch with Hal, his email is oddenh at ipfw.edu

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