Bertram F. Malle

(401) 863-6820
Office Location: 
Metcalf 357
Research Focus: 
Social cognition, theory of mind, explanations, moral judgment

Bertram F. Malle was trained in psychology, philosophy, and linguistics at the University of Graz, Austria, and received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University in 1995. Between 1994 and 2008 he was Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and served there as Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences from 2001 to 2007. Since September 2008 he is Professor of Psychology in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University. He is past President of the Society of Philosophy and Psychology. Author of over 70 articles and chapters, he has also co-edited three published volumes, Intentions and intentionality (2001, MIT Press), The evolution of language out of pre-language (2002, Benjamins), and Other minds (2005, Guilford). He authored a monograph on How the mind explains behavior (2004, MIT Press), and his current book project is entitled Social Cognitive Science.

Research Interests:

I consider myself a social cognitive scientist—an identity that has been shaped by all three traditional aspects of my academic career. As a researcher, my interests have revolved around the fundamental cognitive tools that allow humans to navigate the social world, a theme that compellingly merges the cognitive with the social. As a teacher I have had the opportunity to teach courses at that same intersection of fields, such as Social Psychology and Cognitive Science. Finally, my previous administrative activity has focused on the Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences at the University of Oregon, an interdisciplinary forum for researchers who share an interest in exploring the mind within its social context. I am currently president-elect of the Society of Philosophy and Psychology, which has a long tradition of studying the mind from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Social cognitive science is the most suitable category to subsume all of these activities, and it expresses my strong commitment to study the human mind as both a cognitive and a social phenomenon. Below I describe briefly my three central research topics: Social cognition of mental states; intentionality and moral judgment; and explanations of behavior.

Social Cognition of Mental States

In making sense of human behavior, people connect the observed with the unobserved—they find meaning in behavior by inferring mental states. This ability is essential for succeeding in the social world: Without mental state inferences, observed behaviors turn blurry and indistinct, future behaviors are difficult to predict, and communicating with others becomes utterly perplexing.

My research on people' capacity to infer mental states pursues two paths. One examines the conceptual framework that underlies this capacity (people's "theory of mind"), and I have written about its evolutionary, developmental, linguistic, and cultural dimensions (Malle, 2002a, 2002c, 2004, 2005a, 2008b; Malle & Holbrook, in press). Many psychological processes rely on this framework (Malle & Hodges, 2005), and in my second path I examine the perhaps most central of these processes: people's inferences of others' mental states (Malle & Pearce, 2001; Malle, 2005e). Each time people encounter a behavior, they make many inferences simultaneously—e.g., about goals, beliefs, emotions—and the question arises both how these inferences relate to each other and how they relate to other judgments, such as about age, gender, and personality. In a series of experiments funded by the National Science Foundation I test a possible hierarchy among these inferences. Initial studies suggest such a hierarchy ranging from the simplest judgments of a behavior's intentionality and the actor's goal to more complex and difficult judgments about the actor's thoughts and personality characteristics.

Intentionality and Moral Judgment

My earlier work on intentionality (Malle & Knobe, 1997, 2001; Malle, Moses, & Baldwin, 2001) examined the folk concept of intentionality that people bring to social cognition—the specific conditions that have to be met in order for a behavior to be considered intentional. In an extension into the legal realm, my former Ph.D. student Sarah Nelson and I compared people's folk concept of intentionality to the legal definitions of the terms intent and intentionality and found several contradictions between the two, which opens significant room for misperceptions, misunderstandings, and flawed judgments in legal proceedings (Malle & Nelson, 2003). Ongoing studies in my lab examine in more detail how people make judgments of intentionality about legal cases, how the results of their reasoning compare to those of the legal system, and how the two may be reconciled.

A second line of research examines empirically how intentionality judgments influence blame and how, conversely, blame might influence intentionality judgments (Malle, 2006c; Malle & Guglielmo, 2006; Guglielmo & Malle, submitted). My Ph.D. student Steve Guglielmo and I have been examining to what extent people's moral evaluations of a behavior cloud their judgments of intentionality about that behavior. Such a process would present a serious challenge to the legal system if judgments of intentionality, which are normally used to ground and justify judgments of guilt and punishment, are already guided by people's intuitions about guilt and punishment. So far, our results suggest that previous claims of such a biasing effect (Knobe, 2003) do not hold true once the cases and questions are presented in a clear, unambiguous way—taking into account the way people think about intentionality. Ongoing collaborations with a legal scholar in Hawaii and two psychologists in Japan are extending this work across disciplinary and cultural boundaries. 

Explanations of Behavior

Few theories in social psychology have received as much attention as attribution theory. The theory's assumption that humans actively interpret and explain behavioral and social events has led to many insights in the domains of social influence, self-regulation, relationships, and health. However, after nearly 40 years of research, the dominant version of attribution theory (Kelley, 1967)—characterizing explanations as referring to either "person causes" or "situation causes"—remains highly underspecified, has surprisingly little empirical support, and does not provide a comprehensive account of what people actually do when they explain behavior.

By studying naturally occurring explanations—that is, by letting people use their own words rather than forcing pre-defined rating scales on them—we have developed a folk-conceptual theory of behavior explanations that specifies people's conceptual assumptions underlying those explanations and generates novel predictions about various explanatory phenomena (Malle, 1999, 2001b, 2004, 2007c; Malle et al., 2000; O'Laughlin & Malle, 2002). According to this theory, people's explanations of behavior cannot be properly understood when explanations are categorized as "person" or "situation" causes. Rather, behavior explanations must be divided into multiple distinct modes (such as causes, reasons, and causal histories) and, within these modes, into specific types (such as belief vs. desire reasons). These are the distinctions that matter when people construct and perceive explanations. 

To illustrate, in a meta-analysis of the well-known actor-observer asymmetry in attribution (Jones & Nisbett, 1972), the effect size across 173 published studies was zero (Malle, 2006). Thus, when explanations are couched in terms of traditional attribution theory (referring to either person or situation causes), no difference can be detected between people's explanations, as actors, of their own behavior and, as observers, of other people's behavior. By contrast, when couched in terms of the folk-conceptual theory, strong and reliable differences emerge (Malle, Knobe, & Nelson, 2007). The fact that these classifications have predictive power—not only for actor-observer asymmetries but also for group-individual comparisons (O'Laughlin Malle, 2002) and impression management (Malle et al., 2000)—suggests that the folk-conceptual theory of explanation captures the breakpoints, or joints, in the human endeavor of explaining behavior.


Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (Vol. 15, pp. 192-240). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Knobe, J. (2003). Intentional action in folk psychology: An experimental investigation. Philosophical Psychology 16, 309-324.

Jones, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E. (1972). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. In E. E. Jones, D. Kanouse, H. H. Kelley, R. E. Nisbett, S. Valins, & B. Weiner (Eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior (pp. 79-94). Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

Note: All cited references to my own publications can be found in my Curriculum Vitae.