Theory of mind is an important social-cognitive skill that involves the ability to think about mental states, both your own and those of others. It encompasses the ability to attribute mental states, including emotions, desires, beliefs, and knowledge. Not only does theory of mind involve thinking about thinking, but it also refers to the ability to understand that other people’s thoughts and beliefs may be different from your own and to consider the factors that have led to those mental states.
Why is it called a “theory” of mind? Psychologists refer to it as such because our beliefs about what might be going on in another person’s head are just that—theories. While we can make predictions, we have no direct way of knowing exactly what a person might be thinking. All we can rely on is our own theories that we develop based on what people say, how they act, what we know about their personalities, and what we can infer about their intentions.
Why Is Theory of Mind Important?
The emergence of a theory of mind is vital during the developmental process. Very young children tend to be more egocentric and are often unable to think about the mental states of others. As people age, their theory of mind emerges and continues to develop.
Forging a strong theory of mind plays an important role in our social worlds as we work to understand how people think, to predict their behavior, to engage in social relationships, and to solve interpersonal conflicts.
In order to interact with others, it is important to be able to understand their mental states and to think about how those mental states might influence their actions.
Theory of mind allows people to infer the intentions of others, as well as to think about what’s going on in someone else’s head, including hopes, fears, beliefs, and expectations. Social interactions can be complex, and misunderstandings can make them even more fraught. By being able to develop accurate ideas about what other people are thinking, we are better able to respond accordingly.
Development of Theory of Mind
The greatest growth of this ability to attribute mental states is believed to take place primarily during the preschool years between the ages of 3 and 5. However, a number of different factors are believed to exert some influence on the development of a theory of mind. Some researchers have suggested that gender and the number of siblings in the home can affect how theory of mind emerges.
Theory of mind develops as children gain greater experience with social interactions. Play, pretend, stories, and relationships with parents and peers allow children to develop stronger insight into how other people’s thinking may differ from their own. Social experiences also help children learn more about how thinking influences actions.
The growth of theory of mind skills tends to improve progressively and sequentially with age. While many theory of mind abilities emerge during the preschool years, research has shown that kids between the ages of 6 and 8 are still developing these skills. In studies, children at this age were still not completely proficient at all theory of mind tasks.
Researchers have also found that children under the age of 3 typically answer questions on theory of mind tasks incorrectly. By age 4, children usually demonstrate better theory of mind comprehension. For example, by age 4, most children are able to understand that others may hold false beliefs about objects, people, or situations.
Stages of Theory of Mind
One study found that children typically progress through five different theory of mind abilities in a sequential, standard order. These tasks, from easiest to most difficult, are:
The understanding that the reasons why people might want something (i.e. desires) may differ from one person to the next
The understanding that people can have different beliefs about the same thing or situation
The understanding that people may not comprehend or have the knowledge that something is true
The understanding that people can hold false beliefs about the world
The understanding that people can have hidden emotions, or that they may act one way while feeling another way
Studies have also found that theory of mind can be unstable. In other words, children may be able to understand mental states in some situations, but struggle in others. While kids may be able to pass most or all theory of mind tasks at the age of 4, their abilities continue to improve and develop through late adolescence and into adulthood.
Some studies also suggest that individual differences in theory of mind abilities are related to a child’s social competence.
How Do Psychologists Measure It?
So how exactly do psychologists go about measuring how people think about their own thoughts and thoughts of others? One of the most commonly used methods to assess a child’s theory of mind abilities is known as a false-belief task. The ability to attribute false belief in others is considered a major milestone in the formation of a theory of mind.
The goal of such tasks is to require children to make inferences about what someone has done or what they are thinking when the other person’s beliefs about reality are in conflict with what children currently know. In other words, children may know something is true; an understanding of false belief requires them to understand that other people may not be aware of this truth.
For example, a child might know that there are no cookies left in the cookie jar—but does he understand that his sister has no way of knowing that there are no cookies left?
False Belief Tasks for Measuring Theory of Mind
How does the false belief tasks that are often used in psychology experiments work? In the “Sally-Anne test,” one of the most frequently used false-belief scenarios, children are shown two dolls named Sally and Anne:
Sally has a basket while Anne has a box.
Sally places a marble in her basket and then leaves the room.
While she is gone, Anne takes the marble from the basket and puts it in the box.
When Sally returns, children who have watched this scenario are asked where they think Sally will look for the marble.
So what do the children’s responses indicate about their theory of mind? Children pass the test if they say that Sally will look in the basket. This demonstrates that these children understand that Sally holds a false belief about where the marble really is. In order to pass the test, children must be able to think about what Sally thinks and believes.
Children who say that the marble is in the box, however, do not pass the test. They fail to demonstrate their own understanding that Sally’s knowledge is different from their own.
While theory of mind has historically been assessed using only false-belief tasks, current approaches involve measuring across a scale of developmental tasks. Doing so better allows researchers to see how different theory of mind milestones emerge as a child ages. For example, the abilities to understand what other people desire emerges before the ability to understand hidden emotions that people may be feeling.
Problems With Theory of Mind
While the emergence of a theory of mind tends to follow a fairly predictable sequence over the course of normal development, sometimes things go wrong. Theory of mind problems can have a range of serious complications. When people struggle to understand mental states, social relationships and interactions can suffer.
Researchers Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues have suggested that theory of mind problems are one of the hallmarks of autism. In a study, they looked at how children with autism performed on theory of mind tasks compared to children with Down syndrome as well as neurotypical children.
They found that while around 80 percent of children who were neurotypical or who had Down syndrome were able to answer theory of mind questions correctly, only around 20 percent of children who had been diagnosed with autism were able to correctly answer such questions.
This problem with perspective-taking and understanding the thoughts of others is thought to contribute to the difficulty that those with Autism spectrum disorders have with some types of social interactions.
Studies have also shown that people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia often also demonstrate theory of mind deficits. One meta-analysis involving more than 1,500 participants showed significant impairments in theory of mind among those with schizophrenia. These participants showed problems with both the ability to understand false beliefs as well as the ability to infer the intentions of others.
By Kendra Cherry, Reviewed by a board-certified physician