Altering the point of you: perspectives on intersubjectivity and metacognition

Rikard Liljenfors

Research output: Types of ThesisDoctoral Thesis


The aim of the thesis was to examine different aspects of the role of intersubjectivity in metacognitive development and in social understanding. More specifically, it investigates how different theoretical frameworks, such as mentalization theory, the theory of primary intersubjectivity, and interaction theory describe the developmental role of intersubjectivity. The suggestions these theories make in regard to this is also studied. Common to all three papers included in the dissertation is the conviction that intersubjectivity actually is central for, and affects in a basic way, social and cognitive development from the very beginning of life.

The methods employed are theoretical and concern the analysis of empirical studies in developmental psychology, as well as the analysis of, and comparison between, theories concerning different aspects of social understanding.

In the first paper, metacognition is interpreted as a way of managing cognitive resources that does not necessitate algorithmic strategies or metarepresentation. When pragmatic, world-directed actions cannot reduce the distance to a particular goal, the agents involved may engage in epistemic action directed at cognition. Such actions are often physical and involve other people, and thus are open to observation. Taking a dynamic systems approach to development, it is suggested that implicit and perceptual metacognition emerges from dyadic reciprocal interaction. Early intersubjectivity allows infants to internalize and construct rudimentary strategies for monitoring and control of their own and of others’ cognitions by means of emotion and attention. The functions of initiating, maintaining and achieving turns make proto-conversation a productive platform for developing metacognition. It enables the caregiver and the infant to create shared routines for epistemic actions that permit training of metacognitive skills. The adult is of double epistemic use to the infant—as a teacher who comments on and corrects the infant’s efforts, and as a cognitive resource for the infant.

The second paper deals with the question of how primary engagement and interaction relate to social understanding, most notably mentalization. The basic hypothesis considered is that primary intersubjectivity and mentalization are complementary and that the latter depends on the former, but the converse to this is not the case. Primary intersubjectivity is the sharing of experiences. It involves emotional engagement in second-person relations that are meaningful to the infant already from the start, whereas the theory of affect mirroring provides an explanation of how mentalization and representational abilities develop from dyadic interaction and contingency detection. A comparison of the theories suggests that, despite of their differences, they can fruitfully be combined. This paves the way for developing an alternative interpretation of affect mirroring, one based on the idea of young infants’ understanding the experiential dimension of emotion and using this to understand others. This makes it possible to trace the continuous development of social understanding based on emotion experience and affect sharing, and in addition to elaborate on the role of second-person engagement in attachment.

The third paper concerns the concept of mentalization as it was introduced into psychological science by Fonagy and his associates. The study describes some fundamental aspects of how the development of mentalization is viewed within the framework of this theoretical approach, enabling certain issues that seem difficult to explain in terms of mentalization theory to be more readily understood. A critical discussion of the theory is then undertaken, comparing and contrasting it with the theory of primary intersubjectivity. A suggestion is made concerning the development of mentalization that connects it with the notion of primary intersubjectivity. More specifically, it is argued that mentalization develops originally within the context of primary intersubjectivity, and that primary intersubjectivity is a basic prerequisite for the development of mentalization and in addition that there is a partial overlap between the concepts of primary intersubjectivity and implicit mentalization.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes

Swedish Standard Keywords

  • Psychology (501)


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