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Bull Menninger Clin. 2003 Spring;67(2):113-31.

The development of teleological versus mentalizing observational learning strategies in infancy.

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Department of Developmental Research, Institute for Psychological Research of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 1394 Budapest, PO Box 398, H-1394, Hungary.


The author introduces the concept of mentalization as a central interpretative mechanism of social reality testing. It is argued that developmentally the emergence of this mentalizing capacity to interpret other people's actions in terms of their causal intentional mind states (such as beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions) is preceded by an earlier, nonmentalistic, teleological action interpretational system that represents others' actions in terms of their concrete and visible outcomes. Then the early psychosocial determinants of the developmental unfolding of our mentalizing capacity are considered from the points of view of attachment theory and developmental psychopathology. It is argued that, in severely dysfunctional (neglecting, abusive, and/or dissociative) caregiving environments, the development of mentalization becomes inhibited and results in a predominantly teleological, nonmentalistic interpretation of intimate attachment relationships that is a core feature of certain developmental psychopathologies such as borderline personality disorder. The normal developmental shift from a teleological to a mentalistic mode of action interpretation is illustrated in terms of recently discovered qualitative changes in imitative and observational learning styles during infancy. It is hypothesized that these changes are related to the infant's developing capacity to interpret the communicative-referential behavioral cues that frame the caregiver's infant-directed actions as signaling a cooperative and benevolent mentalistic attitude toward the baby. In closing, it is proposed that the hypothesized role of severely dysfunctional attachment environments in inhibiting the establishment of mentalization skills could be directly tested in early development in the domain of observational learning. It is predicted that differential patterns of "teleological emulation" versus "mentalistic imitative learning" will be found in infants raised in severely dysfunctional versus congenial and secure caregiving contexts, respectively.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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