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Conflict Analysis Of Theory Of Mind

by Deborah Sword
June 2010 Deborah  Sword

The importance of Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind is something most conflict resolvers know about while perhaps not knowing that it’s called Theory of Mind. It refers to how a person knows what someone else’s intentions are. This belief that we can know someone else’s private unspoken intention, and judge the intention as moral or immoral, is the basis for Theory of Mind research.

Brains develop over time. A toddler’s stubbornness or teenager’s frustrations will reduce in intensity with maturity. One of the cognitive abilities that children develop by the age of about four is seeing that a person might not intend the consequences of a word or act, as in “Mommy, Brian did it but it was an accident.” Children will come to understand that not all acts or words are deserving of punishment. Some are, but not all. Theory of Mind entails this discernment of whether intentions are or are not blameworthy.

If we did not have this ‘mind reading’ ability, the judicial system as we know it would not function. Juries in indictable cases have one task once the offense is proven to have occurred: did the accused person have the intention to commit the crime. Unless the crime does not require that the accused have intention in order to be convicted, for example in strict liability offenses, then someone such as a judge or jury must infer the accused person’s intention from the evidence.

We accept that a jury can rule on the accused person’s intention to commit a crime because reading intentions is something we all do continually. If a colleague empties the coffee pot without making a fresh batch, we judge this was lazy, malicious, forgetful or inconsiderate etc, depending on our opinion of the colleague and other facts. If we then learn that no one had bought coffee so there was none available for a fresh batch, our understanding of the colleague’s intention may shift. We could now blame the person who was supposed to buy more coffee, who we will judge was lazy, malicious, forgetful or inconsiderate etc. Those adjectives describe our belief about the first and second’s colleagues’ intentions, and our attributions of their character. How we think about their intentions is a matter of study for social cogitative neuroscience.

The location of this ‘mind reading’ ability

Toronto native Rebecca Saxe (, now a cognitive and neuroscience researcher at MIT, among other researchers, has located the part of the brain associated with making those moral judgments about the intentions of other people. Rebecca tells us our mind reading of intention occurs in the area of the brain known as RTPJ, the right temporoparietal junction, which lights up in an fMRI when a person is thinking about whether someone intends to be friend or foe, intends to do good or ill, and intends to speak words as insult or comment. The RTPJ is the brain region used to read other people’s minds to determine their intentions. When we think about what other people might be thinking, we think it in our RTPJ. Further, Rebecca has discovered that charging the RTPJ with a shot of magnetism will change a person’s ‘mind reading’ ability. The RTPJ, in its changed state, will make different assessments about the person’s intention in doing the act. In other words, if you witness an immoral act or word that you believe the person intended to do or say, and then witness it again after your RTPJ is charged, you might no longer believe the person should be culpable for the immoral act.

Implications for understanding conflict patterns of blame

As conflict resolvers, we intuit that assumptions, attributions, and inferences about another’s intentions can start or keep conflicts going. We encourage the parties to doubt their certainty that they know the contents of each other’s private thoughts. Blame is, after all, based on knowing and judging a person’s intention. While the RTPJ improves its skill from childhood onward, mind reading is still an imperfect art. Even if it were perfect, something seems to happen to mind reading ability in some conflicts. The conflicting parties get into a pattern of attributing intention to another, i.e. blame. The answer to the question - ‘is that other person’s intention blameworthy’ - is often a strident ‘yes’.

A person in conflict will state as a fact that he knows the offense or insult was intentional. “She knew that would hurt me and she meant to”, is an example of such a theme. In mediation or conflict coaching, the client(s) share points of view (intentions). It might be the first time he has heard her say what she really intended. Once he hears her point of view, he can decide if his earlier moral judgment correctly assessed her intention as deserving of blame. He can change his belief about her intention, or hold onto his belief that his mind reading of her intention is still accurate. She might deny that she intended to hurt him, and he may not accept the denial as true. He keeps his conviction that he knows her true intention was to cause him injury. As interveners in this conflict, we may have labeled any decision to change his judgment of her as transformative and any refusal to believe her as obstinate. Most likely, however, we didn’t think about how the RTPJ in his brain was wired to call those shots.

Using this information on our conflict mental maps

As we intervene in peoples’ conflicts, we create conflict mental maps to help us move parties towards resolution. A physical map may not be the terrain. However, a map that’s a fair representation of the actual landscape is more useful than a map that’s fanciful. We rely on maps to get us places and thus, topographically speaking, accuracy matters. Conflict mental maps, however, are indeed fanciful. They may be a representation of the conflict landscape, but the conflict mental map must move with the fitness landscape if it is to get us anywhere in the conflict. A fitness landscape is a mental model of the parties’ peaks and valleys that describe their relationships in terms of optimization of their resources. The parties move, the fitness landscape shifts, the parties’ intentions for sure move, and so the conflict moves around our conflict mental map as a result.

Conflict mental maps have uncertainty where topographic maps have certainty. Data about the parties, positions, interests, intentions, and desired outcomes are continually imperfect and in motion. A conflict mental map may have to be a four or five dimensional representation of a conflict to have any chance of accuracy, which even then won’t be accurate for long. As we accumulate data during the intervention process, we add layers to the conflict mental map so we can pick our way forward. How a party reads another party’s intention is a layer to the conflict mental map. When we get to the conflict mental map’s intentions meadow we linger, trying to clarify the misconceptions, assumptions, and beliefs that a party is certain s/he knows of the others’ intentions.

I suggest there are at least two obvious conflict analyses we can make of Theory of Mind. First, at all the stages of the conflict intervention, from opening the case to closing it, we use our own mind reading abilities as adaptable skills. Our conflict mental map can absorb multiple inputs. As we listen to parties tell their stories and engage with each other, we can listen for the effects of the RTPJ on their respective narratives. When a party says, ‘I know she meant to hurt me,’ he knows that through his RTPJ. When a party says, ‘I assume it was an intentional act,’ he is responding to what his RTPJ read in his opponent’s mind .

The second use, stemming from the first, is to design exercises to train RTPJs to expand their repertoire. A well-muscled RTP,J which has been relied on extensively as if it were infallible in judgment, will have the courage of its beliefs in its mind reading ability. If we want to build trust among the parties, we need to know how to talk to an RTPJ about the imprecision of its skill that might challenge its certainty of the others’ intentions. It would be helpful to have ‘requisite variety’ of tools in our tool kit to deal with this rigid certainty. The principle of requisite variety holds that the range of possible solutions should be as complex as the problem being solved. Our old tools might not be the language that an RTPJ understands. I’m following Rebecca’s research to see where she next goes with this.


The RTPJ’s use in reading other’s intentions has implications for conflict resolvers at a number of levels. For example, it may suggest that the concepts of how to avoid bias, stereotyping, and even prejudice are problematic. How does one turn off the RTPJ to be impartial? Would you want to if the RTPJ were associated with discernment and judgment? Since the ability to ‘read minds’ appears to be hard wired into our RTPJ, surely there was an evolutionary adaptive advantage to having it operate. Is the RTPJ more rigid in some people creating protracted conflict with mistrust, or does the RTPJ’s read of intention ‘dig in’ as a result of protracted conflict when trust is diminished? These are questions that might become known as Rebecca and her associates continue to research. Conflict resolution practitioners should be interested in the answers she has so far.


L. Deborah Sword has been a conflict manager, trainer, writer and speaker since 1991. Her other musings about conflict analysis, management and resolution appear on her website:

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