The Ascription of Dispositions11 min read

It’s what you do” is the title of a wildly successful advertising campaign by the American insurance company GEICO. In each spot, we see either a “type” (people in a horror movie, a camel, a fisherman, a cat, a Mom, a golf commentator) or people familiar enough to the intended middle-aged audience of insurance buyers to be considered types (mainly 80s and 90s musical acts like Europe, Boyz to Men, or Salt-N-Pepa) doing things they “typically” do. These things are either out of place, annoying, rude, or irrational and thus funny within the context of the “frame” (an office, a restaurant, etc.) in which they are presented.

For instance, in a viral spot, Peter Pan shows up at the 50th-anniversary reunion to remind everybody else of how young he is (and how old they are). The voiceover reads: “If you are Peter Pan you stay young forever. It’s what you do.” In another one, a poor guy slowly sinks to his death in quicksand, while imploring a nearby cat to get help. The cat of course just licks her paws without looking at him: “If you are a cat you ignore people. It’s what you do.”

The commercials are of course funny due to the specificity of each setup. I want to suggest, however, that they may carry a more general lesson. Perhaps they strike us as noticeable (and thus humorous) because they use an action accounting system that is inveterately familiar but that we usually keep in abeyance. In fact, it is so familiar that it requires the odd situations in the GEICO commercials to make it stand out. This action accounting system, rather than relying on “belief-desire” ascriptions, points to typicalities in behavior patterns as their own justification. Thus the template “If are you X, you do Y, it’s what you do” may hold the key for prying ourselves loose of belief-desire talk.

In a previous post, I argued that the belief-desire accounting system commits us to a model in which action is driven by “little pictures in the head.” An entire tradition of explaining action by making recourse to the “ideas” that “drive” it is based on such a strategy (Parsons, 1938). This is not as innocent of a move as it may seem. Pictures in the head are entities assumed to have specific properties (e.g. representational, content-ful, and casually power-ful) that ultimately need to be cashed in in any scientific account of action. This may not be possible (Hutto & Myin, 2013).

In a follow-up post, I noted that, even if taking an ontology-neutral stance (Dennett, 1989), the ascription of belief from a third-person perspective is not an unproblematic practice either. Sometimes, different pieces of evidence (e.g. what people claim to believe) clashes with other pieces of evidence (what people do) to make belief ascription a problematic affair. The point there was that sometimes, even in our routine ascription behavior, we don’t treat beliefs as purely pictures. Actions matter too and sometimes we may conclude that what people really believe has nothing to do with the pictures (e.g. propositions) that they claim to have in their head.

So maybe our ascription practices and our action accounting systems can go beyond the usual belief-desire combo of folk psychology. This is important because one of the reasons why the claim that belief is a kind of habit might be problematic to some is that it doesn’t seem to fit any intuitive picture of the way we keep track and explain other people’s action (or our own). Here I will build some intuition for the claim that there are other ways of “explaining” action that doesn’t require the ascription of picture-like constructs that drive action. These are also compatible with the idea that beliefs are a kind of habit. Moreover, these are already ascription practices that we follow in our everyday accountings; it’s just that they are too boring to be noticeable.

The most obvious way in which we sometimes explain action without using the language of belief is to talk about somebody’s tendencies, propensities, inclinations, etc. Just like in the GEICO commercials, instead of ascribing beliefs and desires we simply point to the action as being “typical” of that doer. In the philosophy of action, at least since Ryle (2002), this is usually referred to as using a “dispositional” language. Just like ideas, dispositions are sufficient “causes” of the action they help account for. So going back to the example of Sam the fridge opener: Instead of saying that Sam opened the fridge because they believed there was sandwich inside, we can say: “Sam tends to open the fridge when they are hungry. It’s what they do.” This is a way of accounting for the action that does not resort to the ascription of world pictures. Instead, it points to a regularity or a tendency in Sam’s action that is noted to occur under certain (usually typical) conditions.

These kind of dispositional ascriptions are fairly common. In fact, they are so common they are kind of boring. Maybe they stand out less than the usual belief-desire combo of folk psychology because they are seldom used for action justification, rationality ascription, or storytelling. A serial killer who attempted to mount a defense based on the claim that “killing is just what I do” would be the subject of a short trial. In this sense, dispositional ascriptions are gray and drab (in spite of their strict accuracy) while the trafficking in (and sometimes the clash between) beliefs and desires just tell a more interesting story (in spite of their inherently speculative nature). But the pragmatics of belief-desire language use or their mnemonic advantage should not dictate their use in social-scientific explanatory projects. Dispositions have an advantage here because they commit us to a less inflationary ontology compatible with the naturalistic commitments of cognitive neuroscience.

As Schwitzgebel (2010) has argued, the dispositional approach can be extended to account for our ascription of the usual “attitudes” whether propositional (like beliefs and desires) or not. This also points to a solution to the ascription problems that arise when sayings (or phenomenological experience) does not match up with action. In contrast to pro-judgment (which favor subjective certainties and verbal reports) or anti-judgment (which favors action) views, the idea is to think of the global entity (e.g. the “belief” or the “desire”) as a cluster of dispositions. So rather than any one member (the saying or the doing) being decisive in our ascription, they all count (although we may weigh some more than others). This means that sometimes, the matter of whether somebody “believes” P will be undecidable (the cases of implicit/explicit dissociation) because different dispositions point in different directions.

The bigger point, however, is that all dispositional ascriptions have the structure of “habituals” (Fara, 2005). So when we say Sam “believes” P, what we are really saying is that Sam is predisposed to agree that P under a certain broad range of circumstances. But we also say that Sam is likely to act as if P is true, to have certain subjective experiences consistent with the truth of P and so on. In this respect, the “belief” that P is just a cluster of cognitive, phenomenological, verbal, and behavioral dispositions. This cashes in on the insight that “habit” (or disposition) is the superordinate category in mental life and that the other terms of the mental vocabulary fall of as special cases. This also reinforces the point which Mike and I made in the original paper (see in particular 56-57), that the issue is not the elimination of the language of belief and desire (or the other folk mental concepts), but their proper re-specification within a habit-theoretic framework.

Another nice feature of the dispositional ascription approach is that when we ascribe a belief, we no longer have to commit ourselves to the existence or causal efficacy of problematic entities (e.g. world pictures) but point to the usual set of things clear in experience: Actions, linguistic declarations, comportments, moods, etc.). Usually, these hang together and point in the same direction, sometimes they do not. However, whether this hanging together no longer has to result in a contest between heterogeneous entities (e.g. sayings versus doings) but between different species of the same dispositional genus.

Note, however, that picking one disposition in the cluster as the decisive element in an act of ascription is a conclusion that cannot be reached by virtue of a priori methodological policy (such as those privileging doings over sayings or vice-versa). Instead, we need to commit ourselves to an ascription standard combining inference to the best explanation with a coherentist approach: Attitude ascriptions should maximize harmony across the entire dispositional profile. So it would be a mistake, for instance, to select a single disposition (or phenomenal experience, or verbal report) as the criterion for attitude ascription, when there’s an entire panoply of other dispositions pointing in a different direction.

So the issue is not whether there’s a contest between “sayings” and “doings” (Jerolmack & Khan, 2014). Rather, the best tack is taking a tally of the entire dispositional panoply, which may involve lots of tendencies to say, do, and experience into account. Here some sayings might clash against some sayings and some doings against other doings.  Whether people strive for consistency across their dispositional profile may be as much of a sociocultural matter (as argued by Max Weber) than an a priori analytic issue. In all, however, what we are confronting are dispositions clashing (or harmonizing with) other dispositions, so in this sense, the analytical task becomes tractable from within a single action vocabulary.


Dennett, D. C. (1989). The Intentional Stance. MIT Press.

Fara, M. (2005). Dispositions and Habituals. Nous , 39(1), 43–82.

Hutto, D. D., & Myin, E. (2013). Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds Without Content. MIT Press.

Jerolmack, C., & Khan, S. (2014). Talk Is Cheap: Ethnography and the Attitudinal Fallacy. Sociological Methods & Research.

Parsons, T. (1938). The Role of Ideas in Social Action. American Sociological Review, 3(5), 652–664.

Ryle, G. (2002). [1949], The Concept of Mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,. With an lntroduction by Daniel C. Dennett.

Schwitzgebel, E. (2010). Acting contrary to our professed beliefs or the gulf between occurrent judgment and dispositional belief. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 91(4), 531–553.


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