Julian Jara-Ettinger, Yale University
The inner structure of goals: costs, rewards, and commonsense psychology
By kindergarten, our knowledge of agents has unfolded into a powerful intuitive theory that enables us to thrive in our social world. In this talk I will propose that human commonsense psychology is structured around a basic assumption that agents choose goals and actions by quantifying, comparing, and maximizing utilities. This Naïve Utility Calculus captures much of the rich social reasoning we engage in from early childhood. I explore this theory in a series of experiments looking at children's ability to reason about the causes behind other people's goals, their reasoning about knowledgeable versus ignorant agents, their ability to interpret ambiguous utterances, and their reasoning about the moral status of agents. Moreover, a formal model of this theory, embedded in a Bayesian framework, predicts with quantitative accuracy how humans attribute competence and motivation. The theory also offers insights into other phenomena in commonsense psychology that, on the surface, do not appear to involve utility maximization and may appear irrational.