Tag Archives: Theory of Mind

Interpreting the Heider-Simmel Animation

For this week’s test, it’s important that you know nothing about the test so you’ll have to take it and then read about it. First, watch this short silent animation (1:30) of some geometric shapes:

Now write a brief description of what happened in the animation. If you need to rewatch the video to refresh your memory of the details, you can. Just don’t read anything about the video before you finish writing your description.

Done? Okay, now it’s safe to read on.

Continue reading Interpreting the Heider-Simmel Animation

Taking the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test

The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” is meant to test Theory of Mind (ToM) or the ability to recognize and understand another person’s mental state. It’s supposed to be a more advanced test than “Fear, Anger, Joy“, which tests simple emotion recognition.

The original 1997 version of Reading the Mind in the Eyes consisted of a set of 25 photos showing the area around the eyes and a choice of two possible mental states for each photo.

However, the limited number of items on the test combined with the choice of only two responses resulted in a test that wasn’t very reliable. Parents of autistic children were scoring as far below the controls as the AS/HFA group was. Additionally, the original version of the test included some expressions for basic emotions (happiness, sadness) which were considered too easily recognizable and not a true test of ToM.

The revised version of Reading the Mind in the Eyes contains 36 items with 4 answer choices for each item, increasing the possible range of scores along with the difficulty level. It also contains a balance of male and female photos, a choice between more closely related mental states (i.e. not a choice between opposites like sympathetic/unsympathetic), and is composed entirely of photos representing complex mental states.

In the original study to validate the test, the AS/HFA group scored a mean of 21.9 while the control had a mean of 26.2. However, the AS/HFA group had only 15 participants versus 239 controls. A sample size of 15 is small, especially for study in which participants only have to complete two questionnaires (the AQ and Reading the Mind the Mind in the Eyes. I’m curious why the researchers didn’t make an effort to obtain a larger AS/HFA sample when they had the resources to administer the test to so many controls.

Pros and Cons of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test

Pros:

  • Tests recognition of complex mental states
  • Balanced presentation of male and female expressions
  • Offers subtly similar answer options to increase difficulty level
  • Self-scoring
  • Provides a list of items that were answered incorrectly (with the correct answers)

Cons:

  • Validation study relied on a small sample size
  • Sets up artificial constraints not present in real life (limited choice of options, time to study “frozen” expressions)
  • Allows for unlimited time to answer each item

Taking the Test

You can take the test here. It’s all on one page. Just look at each set of eyes and then choose which of the four options best describes the state of mind that the pair of eyes conveys. Ideally, you should make your choice as quickly as possible.

It took me a little over 5 minutes to complete the test. I feel like I spent too much time on a few of the photos. For an idea of how unintuitive my process is when I take this kind of test, at one point I found myself unable to decide if a particular expression was content or defiant. These are very different mental states, but I ended up guessing (correctly!) because I couldn’t conclusively pick one over the other.

Once you’ve selected an answer for all 36 items, click the “get score” button and your score will be displayed at the top of the page.

Scoring the Test

Your score is a measure of how many out of the 36 items you answer correctly. You’ll also get a list of which answers you missed and a short summary of where your score fits in the distribution (below average, average or above average).

Here is my scoring information:

Your score: 31

A typical score is in the range 22-30. If you scored over 30, you are very accurate at decoding a person’s facial expressions around their eyes. A score under 22 indicates you find this quite difficult.

The correct answers for the ones you missed are: [I added in my answers in brackets so you can laugh at how wildly off some of them are]

    • 17: doubtful [I chose affectionate – this could be a serious gaffe in a social situation!]
    • 18: decisive [I chose bored]
    • 19: tentative [I chose grateful]
    • 28: interested [I chose affectionate – not that far off]
    • 35: nervous [I chose contemplative]

Like the “Fear, Anger, Joy” test, I scored slightly above average. I’m starting to question how much these tests say about a person’s ability to read facial expressions in “live” social contexts.

When I’m taking a test like this, there are two artificial constraints:

  1.  I’m forcing myself to intensely focus on and study each facial expression.
  2.  I’m given limited options to choose from.

Based on the availability of 4 choices, random guessing alone would result in, on average, 13 correct answers. If you look at the options for each expression, at least one and often two are obviously incorrect (to me, and that may just be me). One of my primary test taking strategies is process of elimination and my approach to this test was no different. If I can eliminate one or two options, my odds of guessing correctly go up significantly.

The artificial nature of the test seems to reduce its value in identifying problems with ToM. When I’m interacting with another person, I’m usually too preoccupied with trying to follow the conversation to spend much time “studying” the other person’s constantly changing expressions.

Often when I’m concentrating on a conversation, I’ll look away from the other person’s face because I find it easier to process information that way. You can’t gather a lot of facial expression data when you’re staring out the window. And, most importantly, there are no prompts. The other person’s expression could be saying literally anything and I have no helpful cue words to narrow that down for me.

Can you guess what these pair of eyes are saying without any cue words to help you? Give it a shot in the comments if you like.
Can you guess what this pair of eyes is saying without any cue words to help you? Give it a shot in the comments if you like.

Then there is the fact that recognizing an expression is one thing; attributing causation is another thing entirely. Facial expressions are supposed to provide the clues that allow us to understand what another person is experiencing (the content of their mental state). Recognizing an expression of anticipation is the first step; deducing what the other person is anticipating should logically follow. Together these make up the concept of Theory of Mind.

To say that the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test is a measure of Theory of Mind is only partially true, especially for those of us on the spectrum. The second step of the process–understanding the content of the other person’s mental state–is where I often go wrong.

The Bottom Line

This is an interesting test of static facial expression reading. It’s value as a test of Theory of Mind is less certain.