Short Assessment for Mental State Inferences
from Social Interaction (SAMSI)

This task, developed by Bertram F. Malle and Bruce Holland Rogers, can be used free of charge. If you use the task, however, please send me an E-mail to bfmalle@brown.edu and cite it as follows:

Malle, B. F., & Rogers, B. H. (2008). Short assessment for mental state inferences from social interaction (SAMSI). Retrieved on [date] from http://research.clps.brown.edu/SocCogSci/SAMSI.html.

Overview

This task examines how people interpret a complex social interaction described in a short story. Participants read or listen to the story and are later asked to retell it. The story contains no explicit references to interactants' mental states. The test is scored by recording the number and kinds of participants' explicit mental state expressions.

One strength of the task is that participants do something quite natural -- they learn about a somewhat ambiguous social interaction and have to describe it in their own words.

Another strength is that it likely assesses automatic mental representations of the interaction. We can assume that these representations are relatively automatic because (a) participants do not encounter any mental state terms in the story itself and (b) the use of such mental state terms is never mentiond in the task.

Validation

A first validation of this task can be found in:

Begeer, S., Malle, B. F., Nieuwland, M., & Keysar, B. (2010). Using theory of mind to represent and take part in social interactions: Comparing individuals with high-functioning autism and typically developing controls. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7, 104-122.

Administration

The story is presented (on paper or computer screen) to the participant at the beginning of the experimental session. The standard instruction is: "We'll start out with a short story that we'd like you to read. Try to make sense of what's going on, and we'll later ask you some questions about it." A variant of this instruction might leave out the phrase "Try to make sense..." or instead add more about the ambiguous nature of the interaction and the important of really understanding what is going on in the scene.

The participant then completes other tasks in the session and, after 10-40 minutes, is asked to retell the story. (How long the interval should be to achieve sufficient memory decay and avoid "iconic" recounting has not yet been determined.)

The instructions for the retelling period are as follows:

(1) "Please retell the story that you read at the beginning of the session. Try to remember it as best you can and talk freely into the microphone that will automatically record you."
(2) "Please summarize what the story was about."

These two questions can be asked of each participants in this or the reverse order, or the question type can be manipulated between subjects. Initial data suggest that the first question invites more of a verbatim recounting of the story (particularly when the interval since reading is short) whereas the second question invites a more interpretive recounting.

Scoring

Answers to each question are examined for mental state expressions (e.g., he thought, she wants to, was upset, fear, cheery, getting him down ). A suitable score might be the number of mental state expressions over total number of words or, if verb phrases are the focus, number of mental state verb phrases over total number of verb phrases.

In addition, answers to the first question can be scored for verbatim accuracy (e.g., number of matching words of near-matching phrases), and answers to the second question can be rated for comprehension or level of meaningful interpretation (the rater should be blind to the hypotheses).

If using the task to compare autistic individuals with normally developing individuals, scores for accuracy and mental state expressions might dissociate such that autistic individuals are more accurate in their verbatim recounting but provide fewer mental state terms than control individuals.


A Story

Justine came into the dining room, cupping her hand beneath a spoon that dripped yellow sauce. “Aren’t those flowers great? Four dollars for the bouquet, how about that? Did you wind the clock?”
Howard did not look up from the newspaper. “Later,” he said.
“Please?”
He turned to her. “Watch the spoon. You’re going to stain the carpet.”
“It chimed seven. This clock is really slow.”
“You just dribbled.”
She looked down. “I caught it.” She showed him her cupped hand. “See? Dinner is going to be great. Now would you wind the clock?”
He took in a deep breath, then exhaled loudly. “All right.” He closed the paper. The headline read, “DEATH TOLL RISES.”
After she had gone back into the kitchen, he read the lead story again. Then he stood and went to the mantle where the clock sat among ballerina figurines. He opened the clock’s crystal. As he fitted the key into the clock, his hand trembled. He hesitated. He took another deep breath, let it out slowly, and dropped the key into his pocket without winding the clock.
Howard looked toward the kitchen, bit his lip, then took the clock down from the mantle. Inside the door was taped a business card from the jeweler who had replaced a broken spring. Howard pulled the card free, then jammed it against the flywheel. The clock stopped ticking. Then he wound it.
He returned to the table just as Justine carried in their salad bowls. “Did you wind it?” she asked.
“Didn’t I say I would?”
She put the bowls down and turned back toward the kitchen. “I’m fussing, I know. The house just isn’t right without that clock chiming the quarter hours.”
Howard folded his newspaper, and after she had again left the room he said, “You are right.”
She came back in with their dinner plates. “How was your day? Mine was marvelous. Business was slow all over the store, but I had three big ring-ups. Bianca said it’s all about attitude.”
He cut his meat.
“So how was your day?”
“My day.” He shook his head.
“Not so good? Tomorrow will be better.”
“I’m not counting on it.”
“Well your job has always given you a great deal of—“
”It’s not my job,” he said. He nodded at the paper.
She followed his gaze towards the headline. “You can’t let that get you down.”
“Can’t I?”
She twisted her napkin in her hands. “It doesn’t have to touch us.”
“It’s better if it does touch us. It’s touching everyone.”
If the clock had been running, it would have struck the quarter-hour by now.
He said, “There are times when it is obscene to be cheery. Obscene!”
Justine’s face was white. She threw her wadded napkin onto the plate. She knocked her chair over in her hurry to stand and leave.
Howard’s hands trembled again as he speared a bite.