How do you know that? Automatic belief inferences in passing conversation

Paula Rubio-Fernández, Francis Mollica, Michelle Oraa Ali, Edward Gibson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is an ongoing debate, both in philosophy and psychology, as to whether people are able to automatically infer what others may know, or whether they can only derive belief inferences by deploying cognitive resources. Evidence from laboratory tasks, often involving false beliefs or visual-perspective taking, has suggested that belief inferences are cognitively costly, controlled processes. Here we suggest that in everyday conversation, belief reasoning is pervasive and therefore potentially automatic in some cases. To test this hypothesis, we conducted two pre-registered self-paced reading experiments (N1 = 91, N2 = 89). The results of these experiments showed that participants slowed down when a stranger commented ‘That greasy food is bad for your ulcer’ relative to conditions where a stranger commented on their own ulcer or a friend made either comment – none of which violated participants’ common-ground expectations. We conclude that Theory of Mind models need to account for belief reasoning in conversation as it is at the center of everyday social interaction.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104011
Number of pages7
Early online date27 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019


  • Theory of Mind
  • False-belief tasks
  • Automatic and controlled processes
  • Pragmatics
  • Belief inferences


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