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Theory of Mind

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Theory of Mind

We nurture our brains from childhood to adulthood to develop various, unique characteristics, which comprise who we are. Some grow up to be understanding and courteous to others, while others focus on themselves and fail to empathise with others regularly.

The theory of mind, at its core, is an understanding that, as we have both complex thoughts and feelings, others around us do, too. They have knowledge and beliefs we may not share with them and lives lived outside of our own. In psychology, the theory of mind explores these ideas.

Theory of mind: definition

Theory of mind states others have different mindsets and beliefs than us. They have different interpretations of events, and their emotions and desires are entirely their own. Research into the theory of mind typically revolves around a child’s understanding of others as mental beings with different beliefs and desires to their own.

Theory of Mind Different styles StudySmarterTwo people with different fashion styles, Flaticon

For example, a friend of yours may love Harry Potter, but another may hate it.

As human beings, our experiences and those of others nurture us. We learn to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes and follow the patterns of social interaction. According to Premack & Woodruff (1978), the theory of mind enables us to understand that other people have different beliefs and ways of thinking. As a result, we can predict others’ mental state and behaviour while dealing with them on a social basis daily.

Problems with the theory of mind have been linked to people with autism and social/communication difficulties.

Phases of the theory of mind in psychology

As children, we cannot understand other people think differently. We have not yet developed the theory of mind. It develops slowly in the course of our lives. The theory of mind begins to develop in children between the ages of 4 and 5 (although some believe it begins at about 15 months). At this age, we begin to perceive the thoughts and feelings of others. We do this by paying attention to others around us, playing make-believe, empathising with others, and understanding that different wants and needs produce different behaviours (intentions).

According to Wellman (2004), the following are a sequence of steps through which a child develops the theory of mind:

  • Wanting:
    • Children begin to understand that everyone has different wants.

      People use different means to get what they want.

  • Ways of thinking:

    • They begin to understand others may have different beliefs about the same thing.
    • They determine the behaviour of people by what they think will happen.
  • The unseen needs more knowledge:
    • Different people have a different knowledge base.
    • If a person hasn’t seen something, they need more knowledge to understand.
  • False beliefs:
    • People can have beliefs that are different or outside of reality.

  • Concealed emotions:

    • Children become aware that people can hide emotions.

    • People may show a different emotion from their actual feelings.

Theory of mind: test

Dennett (1978) explained the false belief task as a test allowing the researchers to adequately distinguish between a child’s original belief about something (true) and their realisation that someone else might have a different view (false).

False belief tasks are one of the standard tests used to assess a child’s development.

There are two kinds of false belief tests used to understand how children develop the theory of mind from infancy into adulthood.

Test 1: smarties

False belief task one assesses the child’s realisation that:

  • People can have false beliefs about events.

  • This is tested by an unanticipated event occurring that combats their original belief.

The task: The researcher puts a box of sweets (smarties) in front of children and asks them to guess what’s inside (Wimmer, Leekman and Perner, 1987). The children reply that the box is full of sweets. However, when the children open the box, they see pencils (people can have false beliefs about events).

Theory of Mind Smarties task StudySmarterSelection of sweets, Flaticon

Then the researcher asks the children the same question, but from another person’s point of view: ‘What will your friend Ana (who is outside the room) say is inside the box when she sees it?’

  • The children under three answer, ‘She will guess that there are pencils in the box.’

  • The children about four years old answered correctly with, ‘She will guess there is candy in the box.’

Children four years and older reflect on the theory of mind as they recognise that others may have a different opinion about a similar event.

Test 2: Maxi test false belief about another’s belief

Wimmer and Perner (1983) performed the Maxi test. The researcher read a story to the children that revolved around Maxi and his mother.

Story

Maxi put his chocolates in the blue cupboard before leaving the house to play. In the meantime, Maxi’s mother used some of his chocolates from the blue cupboard to make a chocolate cake. Later, the mother put the leftover chocolates in the green cupboard. The children were then asked: ‘Where will Maxi look for his chocolates when he comes back?’

  • Children under four answered that Maxi would look in the green cupboard.

  • On the other hand, children under four answered that Maxi would look in the blue cupboard.

Explanation of purpose

The children were supposed to differentiate between their own beliefs (chocolates are in the green cupboard) and Maxi’s (the chocolates are in the blue cupboard where he left them). The children begin to show the development of the theory of mind when they realise that their belief (true) was different from Maxi’s belief (false).

The Sally-Anne task is important for your exam and is similar to the Maxi test. We will cover it next.

Problems with the theory of mind: autism

Is autism a negative consequence of an undeveloped theory of mind? We will dissect this question with the help of research in this section.

Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) proposed a famous explanation for autism. They suggested that autism is diagnosed when there is an absence of the theory of mind or mentalising power (being able to extract and understand information about other peoples goals and mind state) in children.

Autism is not a single condition but a generalisation of various disorders such as Asperger’s disorder, which is why it is called ‘autistic spectrum disorder’. Wing and Gould (1979) characterised the symptoms of autism into three key sections:

  • Social and emotional impairment passive response and abnormal eye contact.

  • Language and communication delayed response in conversations and repetitive speech.

  • Impairment in the flexibility of thought dependence on repetitive actions and unusual fixation with objects or their parts.

Theory of Mind Wings triad StudySmarterThe wings triad diagram, Mehak Fatima - StudySmarter Originals

Baron-Cohen (1985) found that around 80% of the participants diagnosed with autism were unable to pass the initial false belief task. Autistic children show difficulty in nonverbal communication, social skills and have repetitive behaviours (Speaks, 2011).

The Sally-Anne Study

Baron-Cohen (1985) established the above results through the Sally-Anne study. Here, they studied three groups of children:

  1. Autistic children (average age of 12).
  2. Down Syndrome children (average age of 11).
  3. Neurotypical children (average age of four).

They used two dolls, Sally and Anne. Sally had a basket, Anne had a box, and the children named the dolls (naming question). Sally hid a marble in the basket and left the room, and Anne took the marble and placed it into her box. Sally then returned, and the children were asked: ‘Where will Sally look for her marble?’ (belief).

The children would have to say ‘the basket’ to answer correctly, as Sally would still believe the marble is in her basket. She does not know Anne moved it. They were also asked: ‘Where is the marble, really?’ (reality questioning), and, ‘Where was the marble at the start?’

All of the children could name, answer the reality question, and remember where the marble was at the start correctly. However, those with Down’s syndrome scored 86% on the belief question, and normal children scored 80%. Meanwhile, autistic children scored 20%. This finding suggests they struggle to understand beliefs outside of their own.

Since the study used dolls, it lacks ecological validity.

According to Castelli et al. (2002), people with autism have less active temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). These brain areas are linked to the working of the theory of mind. These children may have a flawed development of the theory of mind.

Children with this disorder may only perform in the false belief task when explicitly directed to it. Senju (2012) found that when children with autism are in their natural setting and not in a lab setting, they fail to perform false belief attribution tasks naturally.

Theory of Mind - Key takeaways

  • When faced with a new situation or object, people may react differently.
  • Theory of mind begins to develop in children at the age of four and five years.
  • Wellman (2004) explained a sequence of five stages in developing the theory of mind: wanting, ways of thinking, the unseen needs more knowledge, false beliefs, and concealed emotions.
  • The false belief is a standard test allowing the researchers to adequately distinguish between the child original belief about something (true) and their realisation that others may think differently (false).
  • There are two kinds of false belief tests used to understand how children develop the theory of mind from infancy into adulthood. They are the Smarties task and Maxi task. The Sally-Anne study demonstrated a failure of the theory of mind in autistic children.
  • An absence of the theory of mind or mentalising power in children can cause disorders like autism spectrum disorder.

Frequently Asked Questions about Theory of Mind

Theory of mind states that others have different mindsets and beliefs from us. They have different interpretations of events, and their emotions and desires are entirely their own. 

Theory of mind as a concept has existed for some time and picked up interest in the 1980s. Premack and Woodruff's (1978) studied the theory of mind alongside Baron-Cohen, giving it more prominence.

The theory of mind develops through the use of language. Children listen or talk to people and understand that others’ beliefs are sometimes different.

Final Theory of Mind Quiz

Question

Define the theory of mind.

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Answer

Theory of mind states others may have different mindsets and beliefs than us. They have different interpretations of events and their emotions and desires are entirely their own.

Show question

Question

According to Premack and Woodruff (1978), the theory of mind enables us to predict the _____ and the behaviour of others while dealing socially with them.

Show answer

Answer

Mental state.

Show question

Question

The theory of mind originally begins to develop among children in the age bracket of ____ years of age.

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Answer

Four to five.

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Question

What was the 'ways of thinking’ stage of the theory of mind? 

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Answer

They begin to understand that others may have different beliefs about the same thing. They determine the behaviour of people by what they think will happen.

Show question

Question

Who proposed the phases or stages of the theory of mind?

Show answer

Answer

Wellman (2004) proposed the phases or stages of the theory of mind.

Show question

Question

What are the false beliefs in the stages of the theory of mind?

Show answer

Answer

People can have beliefs different from reality.

Show question

Question

What was Dennets (1978) explanation about false-belief tasks?

Show answer

Answer

Dennett (1978) explained the false belief task as a test allowing the researchers to adequately distinguish between the child’s original belief about something (true) and their realisation of a different belief of someone else (false).

Show question

Question

What are false belief tasks used for?

Show answer

Answer

False belief tasks are standard tests used to assess the child’s development of the theory of mind.

Show question

Question

What was actually inside the box in the false belief task by Wimmer et al. (1987)? 

Show answer

Answer

Pencils.

Show question

Question

What were the false belief task findings by Wimmer et al. (1987)?

Show answer

Answer

  • The children under three answer, ‘She will guess that there are pencils in the box.’
  • The children about four years old answered correctly with, ‘She will guess there is candy in the box.’
  • Children four years and older reflect on the theory of mind as they recognise that others may have a different opinion about a similar event.

Show question

Question

Who conducted the false belief task two?

Show answer

Answer

Wimmer and Perner (1983) conducted the false belief task two.

Show question

Question

What were the results of the false belief task by Wimmer and Perner (1983)?

Show answer

Answer

The children had to answer the following question: ‘Where will Maxi look for his chocolates when he returns?’

  • Children under four answered that Maxi would look in the green cupboard.
  • On the other hand, children under four answered that Maxi would look in the blue cupboard.

Show question

Question

What was the purpose of the false belief task by Wimmer and Perner (1983)?

Show answer

Answer

The children were supposed to differentiate between their own beliefs (chocolates are in the green cupboard) and the belief of Maxi (the chocolates are in the blue cupboard where he left them). The children begin to show the development of the theory of mind when they realise that their belief (true) was different from maxi’s belief (false).

Show question

Question

What did Baron-Cohen suggest about the reasoning behind Autism emergence?

Show answer

Answer

Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) proposed a famous explanation for autism. They suggested autism is diagnosed when there is an absence of the theory of mind or mentalising power in children.

Show question

Question

Why is Autism called the ‘Autistic spectrum disorder’?

Show answer

Answer

Autism has traits from different disorders (such as Asperger’s disorder) and is not a single condition, so it was called ‘Autistic spectrum disorder’.

Show question

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