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Disturbances in the spontaneous attribution of social meaning in schizophrenia

  • W. P. Horan (a1), K. H. Nuechterlein (a1), J. K. Wynn (a1), J. Lee (a1), F. Castelli (a2) and M. F. Green (a3)...



Schizophrenia patients show disturbances on a range of tasks that assess mentalizing or ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM). However, these tasks are often developmentally inappropriate, make large demands on verbal abilities and explicit problem-solving skills, and involve after-the-fact reflection as opposed to spontaneous mentalizing.


To address these limitations, 55 clinically stable schizophrenia out-patients and 44 healthy controls completed a validated Animations Task designed to assess spontaneous attributions of social meaning to ambiguous abstract visual stimuli. In this paradigm, 12 animations depict two geometric shapes ‘interacting’ with each other in three conditions: (1) ToM interactions that elicit attributions of mental states to the agents, (2) Goal-Directed (GD) interactions that elicit attributions of simple actions, and (3) Random scenes in which no interaction occurs. Verbal descriptions of each animation are rated for the degree of Intentionality attributed to the agents and for accuracy.


Patients had lower Intentionality ratings than controls for ToM and GD scenes but the groups did not significantly differ for Random scenes. The descriptions of the patients less closely matched the situations intended by the developers of the task. Within the schizophrenia group, performance on the Animations Task showed minimal associations with clinical symptoms.


Patients demonstrated disturbances in the spontaneous attribution of mental states to abstract visual stimuli that normally evoke such attributions. Hence, in addition to previously established impairment on mentalizing tasks that require logical inferences about others' mental states, individuals with schizophrenia show disturbances in implicit aspects of mentalizing.


Corresponding author

*Address for correspondence: W. P. Horan, Ph.D., 300 UCLA Medical Plaza, Suite 2240, Los Angeles, CA 90095-6968, USA. (Email:


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