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What Is Folk Psychology?

In my last post, I asked what readers of my Psych Central blog would like me to discuss in my future posts. I received a couple of responses on my personal website (which were regarding topics I had covered already) and two on my blog here, which are new topics; I address one of these two subjects in today’s post (folk psychology) and the other in next month’s (the psychology of science/religion debates).

Keep in mind that these topics are complex and the answers I provide will be necessarily brief and simplified.

With that said, I begin my discussion of folk psychology.

Physical causes and mental causes

Imagine you are watching a horror movie, and in a scene toward the end, a female character runs over a group of men.

The question is, What caused her to run over those people?

In physical sciences, we typically explain behavior in physical terms. So some event occurs based on what occurred before it. For instance, imagine that before our driver ran over those people, she had stopped at the red light but a speeding car (being chased by the police) drove right into her. As a result, her car was pushed into the passing pedestrians. So the cause of her running over those pedestrians can be physically linked to the car bumping her from behind.

Indeed, this is how we usually explain events in sciences, be it physics, economy, or biology. Nevertheless, this is not true in folk psychology, as I illustrate below.

What is folk psychology?

Let us return to the above scenario. Suppose our driver is not bumped but runs a red light and hits a group of 5-6 men who were crossing the intersection. Furthermore, assume that earlier in the movie, she tells her friend, “I hate men.” Did she run over those pedestrians because she hated men?

Compared to scientific physical explanations, this is an unusual way of making sense of an event. How does the mental state of hatred relate to a physical accident?

So folk psychology refers to explaining events through reference to states of mind—intentions, beliefs, knowledge, desires, etc.

Folk psychology describes how we usually understand and explain behavior. That intentions and thoughts make things happen, not physical events.

Folk psychology is prevalent. When you go online, you find thousands of discussions where users are speculating on reasons why a certain celebrity (or person in the news) did this or that.

Consider two examples—one, a celebrity making a large donation, and two, a mass shooting. You might read one internet user say a celebrity’s large donation was motivated by concern for the good of others, while another disagrees and points to the celebrity’s desire for more wealth or fame. Similarly, regarding a mass shooting, one individual says the act was caused by political ideology or extremist religious beliefs, while another disagrees and emphasizes motives of personal hatred/revenge, desire for fame, etc.

Is folk psychology wrong?

Is there anything inherently wrong with such reasons as scientific explanations? No. Well, at least not according to most psychologists.

One group of theoreticians, associated with the philosophical position called “eliminativism,” suggest folk psychology is wrong and mental states do not exist. That we are more like machines. This view can be appealing for those hoping for a more objective and more “scientific” explanation of behavior. Might there come a day in future when we can explain every behavior by referring to specific molecular changes in the brain or physical changes in the environment? Perhaps. But for now, it seems to me that folk psychology is a good enough theory for explaining human behavior. Don’t you?

What Is Folk Psychology?

Arash Emamzadeh

Arash Emamzadeh attended the University of British Columbia in Canada, where he studied genetics and psychology. He has also done graduate work in clinical psychology and neuropsychology in US. Arash maintains a personal psychology blog and a blog for Psychology Today. Arash has a wide range of intellectual and artistic interests; he also maintains a poetry blog.

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APA Reference
Emamzadeh, A. (2019). What Is Folk Psychology?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Jun 2019
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