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Early Years, Vol. 22, No.

2, 2002

Playing Social Chess: children’s play and

social intelligence

RICHARD BAILEY, Canterbury Christ Church University College, UK

ABSTRACT Humans live in complex social environments. By the time they reach
adulthood, most people have developed highly sophisticated social skills, including the
ability to infer the ‘invisible’ mental states in others, and to act upon those inferences;
they have become experts at ‘social chess’. This paper draws upon research from
developmental and evolutionary psychology, primatology, as well as studies of autistic
children, to explore the processes by which children acquire the complex skills
underpinning social interaction. It also examines obstacles to social skill acquisition. In
light of ethological studies of social play in humans and other primates, it is argued that
play is a fundamental medium for acquiring social skills.

Keywords: play, social development, mindreading, autism, intentionality

Introduction: everyday mindreading

Imagine what your world would be like if you were aware of physical things
but were blind to the existence of mental things. I mean, of course, blind to
things like thoughts, beliefs, knowledge, desires, and intentions, which for
most of us underlie behavior (Baron-Cohen, 1995, p. 1).
If we dwell for a moment on Simon Baron-Cohen’s challenge, we may come to
recognize why the ability to infer mental states in ourselves and others lies at the very
heart of social interaction, of communication, of co-operation and competition, indeed,
of almost every feature of the social life of humans. If you were blind to mental states,
what sense would you make of the mosaic of conversations that occur during an average
day, some  eeting, others intimate, some involving numerous speakers, others referring
to people not even present? What sense would you make of jokes, or innuendoes or lies?
The problem with these sorts of thought experiments is that they are so difŽ cult to
carry out in any serious way. The idea of ‘mindblindness’, as Baron-Cohen (1995) and
ISSN 0957-514 6 print/ISSN 1472-4421 online/02/020163-1 1 Ó 2002 TACTYC
DOI: 10.1080/0957514022015149 5
164 R. Bailey

others (Carruthers, 1996; Leslie, 1991) have labelled an inability to infer mental states,
is difŽ cult enough to conceive. To actually imagine what it might be like is almost
impossible. This is not because mindblindness is some otherworldly, sci-Ž scenario.
There are, as I shall suggest, reasons for supposing that mindblindness is a very real
condition affecting an identiŽ ed part of the population. It is almost impossible for most
of us to recreate mindblindness because it is so very easy for us to mindread. From
infancy, we are able to engage in such dazzling feats of inference that it is difŽ cult to
conceive of life without that ability.
Indeed, human behaviour is very difŽ cult to understand other than through mentalistic
explanations. The philosopher, Daniel Dennett (1987, 1996) equates mindreading with
what he calls ‘adopting the Intentional Stance’. He has persuasively argued that
attributing mental states (by which he includes beliefs, desires, thoughts and intentions)
to complex systems, such as behaviour, is the easiest way of explaining them, and
predicting their next steps. To appreciate the explanatory power of the Intentional
Stance, consider its alternatives. Dennett suggests that there are two main alternative
approaches to take. We might seek to explain an event in terms of its physical make-up
(which he labels the Physical Stance), or we might turn to an explanation in terms of its
functional design (the Design Stance). Both positions have their virtues (cf. Dennett,
1996, pp. 27–40). However, neither offers an adequate understanding of something as
complex,  eeting and disguised as human behaviours and their associated mental states.
The Intentional Stance, on the other hand, allows the mindreader to respond quickly and
efŽ ciently to a constantly changing social environment.
A number of psychologists have suggested that it is an inability to mindread that
causes autistic people to have such great difŽ culty understanding social environments
(Baron-Cohen, 1995; Carruthers, 1996; Leslie, 1991). Following the transitory and
disguised world of social interactions, that for most of us is effortless and unconscious,
is for many people with autism alien and incomprehensible. The neurologist, Oliver
Sacks (1993), describes the difŽ culties facing one autistic woman whilst at school:
Something was going on between the other kids, something swift, subtle,
constantly changing—an exchange of meanings, a negotiation, a swiftness of
understanding so remarkable that sometimes she wondered if they were all
telepathic. She is now aware of the existence of these social signals. She can
infer them, she says, but she herself cannot perceive them, cannot participate
in this magical communication directly, or conceive of the many-leveled,
kaleidoscopic states of mind behind it. (p. 106)
Of course, mindreading is a prerequisite not just of making sense of behaviour. It also
helps us make sense of language and communication. This is because, on hearing
someone speak, we not only decode the speciŽ c words and their place within the
sentence; we also imagine what the speaker’s underlying intention might be (Sperber &
Wilson, 1986). Thus, when a friend comments, ‘What an interesting haircut!’ we have
to draw upon much more than semantics and syntax if we are to fully understanding their
meaning. Frequently, too, we communicate in ‘telegraphic fashion’ (Dunbar, 1996,
p. 89), providing just the key points and leaving it to the listener to Ž ll in the gaps to
make sense of what we are really saying. By way of example, Dunbar (1996) cites the
HIM: I’m leaving you!
HER: Who is she?
The Ž rst statement could have numerous different interpretations, and it would be
Playing Social Chess 165

impossible to judge which was the correct one without an awareness of the context in
which it was delivered.
The speaker, too, has to mindread if her communication is to be successful. The
speaker has to predict and monitor the listener’s understanding of what is said, and may
need to change her communication if she detects that her intention has not been
recognized. What does he already know about this subject? What additional information
do I need to supply? Does he already assume something to be the case? Is this matter
likely to be of interest, at all [1]?
We are, in a very real sense, social animals. Indeed, there are good reasons to suppose
that it is the distinctive complexity of human social environments that has led to the
dramatic increase in brain volume in our hominid ancestors (Dunbar, 1996; Byrne &
Whiten, 1988). This has prompted Nicholas Humphrey (1984, p. 20) to describe
day-to-day living in complex social groups as ‘social chess’ [cf. Leakey and Lewin
(1992) and Baron-Cohen (1995) for similar uses of the term].
In a complex society … there are beneŽ ts to be gained for each individual
member both from preserving the overall structure of the group and at the
same time from exploiting and out-maneuvering others within it … they (social
primates) must be able to calculate the consequences of their own behavior, to
calculate the likely behavior of others, to calculate the balance of advantage
and loss—and all of this in a context where the evidence on which their
calculations are based is ephemeral, ambiguous, and likely to change, not least
as a consequence of their own achievement.
The metaphor of social chess usefully captures signiŽ cant features of children’s
everyday social interactions. As descriptions by Pollard (1985), Corsaro (1997) and
others indicate, the social world of children involves a range of transactions that are by
turns co-operative, competitive and manipulative: networks of friendships are formed
and reformed; compromises are made; plans are drawn, redrawn and withdrawn. Beyond
the skills necessary merely to perceive the state of play, the child must also be capable
of a series of conjectures based upon their planned actions, likely and possible responses
to those actions, and appropriate responses to those responses.
Yet, as Baron-Cohen (1995, p. 19) points out, the image of chess is really insufŽ cient
to capture the intricacies of normal childhood social exchange. Firstly, not all social
interactions are competitive, and even co-operative behaviour requires considerable
mindreading skills. Secondly, for most of us, chess requires intense thought and effort,
whilst children’s social exchange is carried out with consummate ease and intuition. This
latter point is all the more remarkable since, unlike chess players, children can adapt or
break the rules; they can change identities—pawns suddenly become knights or kings—
and they can even switch sides (Leakey & Lewin, 1992). By the time children enter
primary school, most are able to instantly, automatically interpret other people’s
behaviour in terms of what they may be thinking, planning or wanting.
Humphrey (1984, p. 21) has argued that the level of intelligence required for social
interaction of this sort is unparalleled in any other sphere of living [2]. Remarkably, from
infancy, we are able to master these skills effortlessly and efŽ ciently.

Theories of Theories of Mind

Academic interest in the skills of mindreading has risen greatly during the last decade.
Under various names (see Table 1), it has become a focus for research in many areas of
166 R. Bailey

TABLE 1. Terms used in associatio n with the capacity to infer thoughts , beliefs and desires in others, with
earliest and indicativ e reference s

Term References

MINDREADING Humphrey (1984), Baron-Cohen (1995)

MENTALISING Morton (1989)
THEORY OF MIND Premack and Woodruff (1978), Leslie (1991)
SOCIAL CHESS Humphrey (1984), Leakey and Lewin (1992)

study, including non-human primates [e.g. Premack and Woodruff (1978), who intro-
duced the phrase ‘theory of mind’, and Povinelli (1996)], cognitive pathologies (Leslie,
1991; Baron-Cohen, 1995), neurology (Frith & Frith, 2000; Klin et al., 2000) and child
development (Astington, 1996; Wellman, 1990). As yet, however, educators have been
slow to embrace work in this Ž eld, but, as I will attempt to show in this paper,
mindreading is a central factor in a child’s ability to interact with others and with the
An important reason for mindreading’s status in recent research has been a growing
recognition within the cognitive and associated sciences of its central role in human
cognition (Hobson, 2002; Brothers, 1997). Indeed, the ability to ‘mentalise’ (Morton,
1989) may be as important a characteristic of being human as is the use of language or
complex material objects (Mithen, 2000). This centrality of its role leads, in turn, to
another issue that has dominated much work on human cognition, namely the ‘learnabil-
ity’ problem, summarized by Baron-Cohen and Sweetenham (1996, p. 158) this way:
‘How on earth can young children master such abstract concepts as beliefs (and false
beliefs) with such ease, and at roughly the same time the world over?’ After all, mental
states are invisible, and have highly complex logical properties. As such, acquiring
concepts of mental states would be baf ingly difŽ cult.
The learnability problem inherent in mindreading skills re ects the similar debate in
linguistics, sparked by Chomsky’s (1965) theory of innate mechanisms dedicated to
syntactic development. Debate in this area is complex. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to
say that the relative importance of genetic or experiential factors continues to be
contested [cf. Pinker (1994) and Sampson (1997) for opposing views]. However, the key
phrase, here, is ‘relative’. On the one hand, it is difŽ cult to imagine how even the most
fundamentalist members of the innate camp could deny some sort of role for experience
with regard to language acquisition (a child brought up in England generally comes to
speak English; a child whose parents use a sign language will be expected to learn that
form). On the other hand, as Pinker (1994) argues, children with speciŽ c language
impairment of genetic origin might offer evidence not only that such mechanisms exist,
but can be selectively damaged. Likewise, proposals of an innate basis (in one form or
another) for mindreading skills [Ž rst suggested by Leslie (1991)] gain considerable
support from evidence that children with autism have selective impairments in the
acquisition of mental state concepts and mindreading (Baron-Cohen, 1995). It is further
supported, I believe, by the discovery of signiŽ cant cross-cultural similarities in
mindreading (Vinden & Astington, 2000).
At present, three main views dominate regarding how innate and learned functions
might operate in the development of children’s mindreading skills, and these are brie y
outlined below.
Playing Social Chess 167

One view is that a theory of mind matures within the mind, rather than having a
developmental history heavily in uenced by speciŽ c environmental factors. This is often
referred to as ‘modularity’ theory, since it is usually argued that fundamental structures
like theory of mind, are encapsulated within specialized centres in the brain. This theory
is proposed in various forms by Baron-Cohen (1995), Fodor (1992), Mithen (1996) and
many others, and often draws upon theories from evolutionary psychology (Barkow et
al., 1992), in which cognitive structures are understood to mature as might physiological
or anatomical structures: they grow with age, and experience is only of secondary
This view contrasts with what has been called the ‘theory theory’ (Gopnik, 1996;
Carruthers, 1996). Here, a far greater role is attributed to children’s own learning
abilities, in which they construct their understandings of mental states by observations
and hypothesis testing during early childhood. An innate basis to theory of mind is still
assumed, but this relates to a propensity towards certain developmental pathways, rather
than to speciŽ c contents of that theory, itself. Experience plays a signiŽ cant role in its
interaction with this propensity.
A third theory contrasts with the other theories by claiming that children do not, in
fact, develop a theory of mind at all, but simply rely upon mental simulation when
attempting to predict behaviour (Gordon, 1996). According to this view, the child
imagines how she would act in any particular position, rather than deriving predictions
by having a theory about the contents of someone else’s mind. The Mental Simulation
approach does not inherently endorse either a relatively strong or weak innateness for
these activities. What seem like mindreading skills might have an innate basis similar to
that hypothesized by modularity theory, so abilities at mental simulation are activated at
some stage of development, or like theory theory, in terms of a propensity to develop
an ability to mental simulation.
I would suggest that, like much else in child development, a strict dichotomy between
genes and environment, between modularity theory and theory theory, is an unnecessar-
ily clear distinction. On the one hand, it is difŽ cult to conceive of an aspect of
development in which the social and cultural environment have no in uence over the
timing and character of that development. On the other hand, theory of mind seems to
appear with such regularity and so effortlessly that some sort of innate basis seems
highly probable. Cross-cultural studies have not been sufŽ ciently numerous to offer a
detailed understanding of how environment and learning in uence the development of
mindreading, or theory of mind. Further information might help resolve at least one
aspect of the debate—strong or weak innateness? Nevertheless, Astington (1996) has
noted that at least some non-Western children appear to develop an understanding of
false belief (a standard method of evaluating theory of mind) at different ages than
Western children.
An important step in theory of mind research was the appearance of ‘false belief’ tasks
for children. In these tasks, children are evaluated on their ability to contrast their own
belief regarding a situation with the belief of another [cf. Baron-Cohen (2000) for a
review of false belief and related tasks].
The surprising initial Ž nding of such research was children become able to succeed in
these tasks by about 4 or 5 years of age, 2 or 3 years earlier than would have been
predicted from Piagetian theory. Since then, numerous other tasks have been developed,
focusing upon a range of related evidence, such as children’s early verbalizations
concerning mental states, their understanding of emotions, and their ability to deceive
168 R. Bailey

Of course, by 4 years of age, children have not had the opportunity to hone and extend
their mindreading skills much beyond a recognition of another’s beliefs or pretence.
But that is just the start of the story. One way of conceiving this is in terms of what
are usually referred to as ‘levels of intentionality’. Dunbar (1996) offers a rough
hierarchy: at the base are computers and perhaps invertebrates, which have zero-order
intentionality (they are not aware of their own mental states; Ž rst-order intentionality is
represented by Descartes’ famous ‘I think, therefore I am’ (‘I believe something to
be the case’); second-order intentionality, therefore, would be represented by the
following: ‘I believe that you believe something’; and third-order intentionality by ‘I
believe that you believe that I believe something is the case’, and so on ad inŽ nitum. To
turn to the metaphor of social chess introduced earlier, it is quite plausible that one’s
success will depend upon how many possible future moves one can anticipate. There are
likely to be fairly strict limits to the level of intentionality we can reach. For example,
Kinderman and his colleagues (1998) found that most adults had great difŽ culty
following a story of causally related events after it reached a Ž fth-order of intentionality.
This, in itself, is quite impressive, and requires sophisticated and abstract conceptualiz-
ing. To prove this point, read through the following sentence from Daniel Dennett
(quoted enumerated by Dunbar, 1996, p. 84). How many orders of intentionality can you
follow, bearing in mind that it is probably a lot easier to follow the sentence written
down than spoken?
I suspect (1) that you wonder (2) whether I realize (3) how hard it is for you
to be sure that you understand (4) whether I mean (5) to be saying that you
can recognize (6) that I can believe (7) you to want (8) me to explain that most
of us can keep track of only about Ž ve or six orders (of intentionality).

Pretence, Play and Mindreading

After all, from an evolutionary point of view, there ought to be a high premium
on the veridicality of cognitive processes. The perceiving, thinking organism
ought, as far as possible, to get things right. Yet, pretence  ies in the face of
this fundamental principle. In pretence we deliberately distort reality. How odd
then that this ability is not the sober culmination of intellectual development
but instead makes its appearance playfully and precociously at the very
beginning of childhood (Leslie, 1987, p. 412).
A number of researchers have highlighted the role of pretence and pretend play in the
development of mindreading skills (e.g. Leslie, 1987; Carruthers, 1996; Baron-Cohen,
1995; Harris & Leevers, 2000). As Leslie’s quote indicates, its early appearance in
infancy presents an interesting puzzle for developmentalists to explain, not least because
some theories seem to predict that children should not be able to perform such acts at
From the age of about eighteen months all normal children, in all human
cultures, start to do something which (when viewed from an external perspec-
tive, at least) appears very odd indeed—they begin to pretend (Carruthers,
2000, unpaged).
From an early age, children everywhere construct imaginary conversations with
make-believe characters, or play out a variety of adult or Ž ctional roles, although the
amount of such play varies somewhat between different cultures and social groups, and
Playing Social Chess 169

among individual children (Garvey, 1977). In pretend play, children can follow quite
complicated scenarios, especially when supported by an older sibling, as is revealed in
this example (Dunn & Dale, 1984, p. 142):

John’s sister: I know, you can be the daddy and I can be the mummy. Yes?
John: Yes.
John’s sister: Right, we’ve got a baby haven’t we?
John: Yeah …
John’s sister: Have you got any babies? …
John to observer: I a daddy.

In this scenario, John, who was 2 years of age, was not only able to recognize that
his sister was pretending, then adopt and maintain a new identity, but he was also able
to indicate to the observer that he was pretending. Through a series of controlled
experiments, Harris and Kavanaugh (1993) have shown that such behaviour cannot
simply be dismissed in terms of the child playing along with or imitating someone
Astington (1993) traces psychologists’ interest in children’s ability to pretend back to
Piaget. He argued that pretence shows the development of children’s capacity for
symbolic representation. The objects the child Ž rst uses in pretend play, Piaget sug-
gested, are personal symbols, so play begins as solitary, and only later becomes shared
with others. The difŽ culty with this view is that, from the beginning of play, infants are
able to appreciate the pretence of others, as the above scenario seems to show. Thus, a
number of researchers have started to interpret early pretence as the Ž rst indication of
children’s ability to recognize mental states in other people (e.g. Leslie, 1987). Indeed,
the presence or absence of pretend play has become a standard developmental marker for
normal or impaired development in mindreading during infancy (Baron-Cohen, 1995)
This presents us with something of a conundrum. As was shown above, children are
not normally able to read intentionality in others (second-order intentionality) before
about 4 years of age. However, evidence suggests that children are able to engage in
pretend play, which seems to require the recognition of intentionality in others, from
about 18 months of age. In fact, matters may be even more confused, since pretence
seems to involve a degree of mindreading one stage more advanced than simple theory
of mind. Using the play scene involving John (who, you will recall was 2 years of age)
and his older sister, in which he was pretending to be Daddy, it seems to be the case that
he plays with the intention of his sister recognizing that he is playing, rather than
something else. In other words, he wants (1) his sister to believe (2) that he intends (3)
to play. Using the same reasoning as Dennett, in his extraordinarily complex sentence,
it appears that in order for a child to engage in pretend play with another, he must be
able to operate at three orders of intentionality. This is beyond the ability of 4 or 5 year
olds in non-play contexts. How can these apparently contradictory Ž ndings be recon-
One possible solution is that rather than play being a consequence of a child’s
developing mindreading skills, which seems to be the consensus view (cf. Baron-Cohen,
1995; Leslie, 1987), play is a precondition for the acquisition of these skills. In other
words, it is through play that children Ž rst come to understand self-awareness, the
distinction between appearance and reality, and possibly even the intentions of others,
which seem to underpin the development of mindreading skills.
170 R. Bailey

A clue to how this might happen is provided by Vygotsky’s (1981, p. 163) oft-quoted
Any function in the child’s cultural development appears twice, or on two
planes. First it appears between people as an interpsychological category, and
then within the child as an intrapsychological category.
This notion that a child’s Ž rst experience of higher cognitive processes is social not
personal lies at the heart of the concept of the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’:
The distance between the actual development level as determined by indepen-
dent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined
through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more
capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 191).
Observations of pretend play in infants seem to re ect Vygotsky’s theory (Astington,
1996). Particularly in the case of younger children (from about 18 months to 3 years),
the child would often be unable to take part in the make believe scene alone: the child’s
performance is ‘scaffolded’ by adult cues and hints (Astington, 1993). However, once he
has been given sufŽ cient support, the child is able to enter the make-believe more fully.
Consider again the scenario created by John and his older sister, as given above, and
focus particularly on the way that the older sister scaffolds John’s imaginative leap.
Pretence of this sort is quite common among 3 and 4 year olds. However, with the
support of an older, friendly peer, children as young as 2 years old can participate in
pretend play, too (Dunn & Dale, 1984).
Vygotsky (1978) himself argued that play creates a Zone of Proximal Development
for the child. If this were the case, one would predict that pretend play would be
intermental, and only later become intramental, and in fact this does seem to be what
happens. One would also predict that children who engaged in frequent, high quality
play with parents and peers would progress more swiftly towards a mature theory of
mind than those who did not. There is some evidence that this, too, may be the case.
Perner et al. (1994) have shown that children’s performance in false belief tasks is
positively correlated with co-operative social interaction with parents and siblings,
especially during pretend play. However, by way of caution, Astington (1996) points out
that there are other ways of interpreting the same data, including more general variables
as parental style. As such, co-operative pretend play would simply be one of a number
of beneŽ cial experiences that a child has, alongside, talk about feelings, discussions
regarding causal relations and witnessing co-operation and respect in those other
members of the family.

Conclusions and Possibilities

This paper has argued for the pivotal importance of mindreading skills in children’s
developing social expertise. As they mature, children become capable of increasingly
sophisticated interactions with others, often involving the inference of beliefs, thoughts
or pretence. Indeed, there are good reasons to suppose that at every stage of infancy,
children’s social intelligence is unmatched by any other aspect of their cognitive
development. By the time they enter primary school, children are well on the way to
becoming masters of social chess. Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is the complex
psychology that lies beneath everyday pretend play in young children. It would be
difŽ cult at the present time to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that play is the
relevant factor in prompting the development of children’s mindreading skills. However,
Playing Social Chess 171

it is not difŽ cult to demonstrate that, whether it appears before, alongside or after certain
central cognitive abilities, play provides children with an additional dimension that is not
replicable in other aspects of their lives. Nicholas Humphrey (1986, p. 63) captures this
view of children’s play admirably:
If there is one element common to all kinds of play—from rough-and-tumble
in the playground, to the most intense and secret fantasy-games behind the
henhouse—it is surely this: play is a way of experimenting with possible
feelings and possible identities without risking the real biological or social
consequences. Cut! Time for tea, time to go home—and nothing in the real
world has changed, except perhaps that the child is not quite the person that
he was before, he has extended just a little further his inner knowledge of what
it can feel like to be human.

Parts of this article were presented in a symposium on children’s play at the annual
conference of the British Educational Research Association, at Cardiff University,
Wales, in September 2000. I would like to thank those colleagues present who offered
very valuable comments. I would also like to thank Kathy Hall, Russell Jago and Pam
Jarvis for their comments on later drafts.

[1] Just to reinforce the point, note how our everyday language often assumes intentionality : The
speaker has to predict and monitor the listener ’s understanding of what is said, and may need to
change her communicatio n if she detects that her intention has not been recognized .
[2] Dunbar (1996) has suggeste d that the ease with which young children execute social challenge s
misled Piaget into assuming that they are not problems of great consequence , and hence he placed
a great emphasis upon the far less complex, but less urgent problems, of conservatio n and volume.
In fact, it is now recognize d that understandin g the social world is far more difŽ cult to master than
understandin g the physical world.
[3] Subsequently , the characte r of much recent discussio n of pretence and mindreadin g has been in the
context of impairment. Autism, in particular , has been a focus of such research since Kanner’s
(1943) original descriptio n of the symptoms of the ‘syndrome ’—lack of affective social contact,
repetitiv e activities and less pretend play. Subsequen t studies have corroborate d Kanner’s Ž ndings
(Lewis & Boucher, 1988).

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