Theory of Mind: Understanding Others in a Social World
Learn what Theory of Mind is and why it matters for overall development.
Posted Jul 03, 2017 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
The core concepts involved in Theory of Mind are beliefs, desires, and intentions, which are used to understand why someone acts in a certain way or to predict how someone will act (Kloo et al., 2010). Overall, Theory of Mind involves understanding another person's knowledge, beliefs, emotions, and intentions and using that understanding to navigate social situations. A commonly used task to measure Theory of Mind is a false-belief task, such as this:
- Show the child a Band-Aid box and ask the child what he/she thinks is inside the box. He or she will likely respond “Band-Aids.”
- Open the box and show him/her that there is a toy pig inside, while saying “Let’s see....it’s really a pig inside!” Then close the box.
- Now, as you are bringing a toy figurine boy who has been hidden up until now into view, the adults says “Peter has never ever seen inside this Band-Aid box. Now, here comes Peter. So, what does Peter think is in the box? Band-Aids or a pig?” (Wellman & Liu, 2004)
This task measures the child’s understanding that someone may hold a belief about an event or object that does not match what the child knows to be true in reality. Children who have developed Theory of Mind will understand that Peter holds a different understanding than them because he did not see in the box. They will respond that Peter thinks Band-Aids are in the box. Those who have yet to develop Theory of Mind might respond that Peter thinks there are pigs in the box, mistakenly assuming Peter holds the same belief as they do.
When do children develop Theory of Mind?
Around age 4, children improve on tasks of Theory of Mind and are able to understand that someone may be acting based on a false belief about an object or event (Kloo et al., 2010). Anecdotally, in my own work with preschoolers, 3-year-olds tend to understand that Peter didn’t see inside the box, but still respond that Peter thinks a pig is in the box. It is from older preschoolers—the 4- and 5-year olds—that I most frequently received the response that Peter thinks Band-Aids are in the box, suggesting that these older preschoolers had some level of false-belief understanding.
For kids with developmental delays, such as those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), Theory of Mind may take a little longer to develop, and some higher level skills may not be reached at all. Youth (ages 5 to 13) with autism received lower scores on measures of understanding others’ beliefs and emotions than typically developing youth, but there were no differences for understanding the intentions of others (Mazz et al, 2017), possibly because understanding intentions is a less complex skill that develops earlier than understanding beliefs and emotions. Theory of Mind also predicted ASD diagnosis, such that those with the lowest level of such skills had more severe diagnoses (i.e. autism with intellectual disability) as compared to diagnoses for those with more sophisticated Theory of Mind skills (Asperger’s syndrome) (Hoogenhout & Malcolm-Smith, 2016). Theory of Mind clearly plays a role in the manifestation of developmental delays, with differences between those with delays and typically developing youth persisting into middle childhood and even adolescence. By understanding Theory of Mind, perhaps we can not only better diagnose those with delays, but also create more effective interventions for encouraging and supporting developmental progress.
How is Theory of Mind related to other areas of development?
False-belief understanding, independent of a child’s language ability and age, has been related to various aspects of social functioning, including one’s ability to engage in meaningful conversations, ability to resolve conflicts and maintain intimacy in friendships, and overall social competence as rated by teachers (Astington, 2003). So, children who have an understanding of false beliefs generally are more advanced in social development as well. Moreover, understanding others’ emotions and beliefs plays a role in developing social competency for children, and the lack of these components of Theory of Mind, which may be evident for those with autism or other developmental delays, may compromise social development (Mazz et al, 2017).
There is some evidence that executive function (EF) skills (i.e., inhibition, shifting, cognitive flexibility) are related to Theory of Mind, such that preschoolers with more advanced EF skills are better able to hold multiple perspectives in mind at once and switch between those perspectives (Diamond, 2006), which may assist in distinguishing between reality and the belief of another person (Kloo et al., 2010). Executive function has also been linked to social competence, such that deficits result in lower levels of social competence (Alduncin, Huffman, Fedman, & Loe, 2014), but social competence (i.e. prosocial skills and engagement in interactions) has also shown a relationship to the development of executive function (Bierman et al., 2009; Park & Lee, 2015, Williford et al., 2013).
So, what does all of this mean? That Theory of Mind plays a complex role in development. Theory of Mind is related to social competence, and social competence is related to executive function. But executive function also contributes to social competence and possibly Theory of Mind skills. There is a lot of new research focusing on these relationships, so we are continuing to fine-tune our understanding of how these three areas of development influence one another.
Research is still working to flesh out the directionality of these relationships, which is important to continue to pursue so that we can help kids reach their potential in all these areas. Social skills are difficult to teach, model, and encourage for all young children, especially those who are delayed in their development. If we can understand the mechanisms behind social competence, such as executive functioning and Theory of Mind, we may be able to help all kids meet the social expectations they encounter in everyday life.
Personally, I think executive function is related to social competence, such that those with higher levels of executive function skills also have more social competence, with that relationship being partially explained by Theory of Mind, such as in the model shown here. The relationship between social competence and executive function could be more complex and bidrectional, as suggested in some of the literature, but I believe it is most important to determine if EF skills relate to Theory of Mind and social competence in this way. Understanding how the underlying mechanism of EF influences one’s social development can helps us create new interventions for children with autism who may struggle with social interactions. These interventions could focus on cognitive and EF components that may help develop social competence, making the intervention less anxiety-provoking and more accessible.
Alduncin, N., Huffman, L. C., Feldman, H. M., & Loe, I. M. (2014). Executive function is associated with social competence in preschool-aged children born preterm or full term. Early Human Development, 90(6), 299–306. doi:10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2014.02.011
Astington, J. W. (2003). Sometimes necessary, never sufficient: False-belief understanding and social competence. In B. Repacholi & V. Slaughter (Eds.), Individual differences in theory of mind: Implications for typical and atypical development (pp. 13–38). New York, NY, US: Psychology Press.
Bierman, K. L., Torres, M. M., Domitrovich, C. E., Welsh, J. A., & Gest, S. D. (2009). Behavioral and cognitive readiness for school: Cross-domain associations for children attending Head Start. Social Development, 18(2), 305–323. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2008.00490.x
Hoogenhout, M. & Malcolm-Smith, S. (2016). Theory of mind predicts severity level in autism. Autism, 21(2), 242-252. doi:10.1177/1362361316636758
Kloo D., Perner, J., & Gritzer, T. (2010). Object-based set-shifting in preschoolers: Relations to Theory of Mind. In B. W. Sokol, U. Müller, J. I. M. Carpendale, A. R. Young, & G. Iarocci (Eds.), Self and social regulation: Social interaction and the development of social understanding and executive functions (pp. 193-217). New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press.
Mazz, M., Mariano, M., Peretti, S., Masedu, F., Pino, M. C., & Valenti, M. (2017). The role of Theory of Mind on social information processing in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A mediation analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47, 1369-1379. doi:10.1007/s10803-017-3069-5.
Park, J., & Lee, J. (2015). Dyadic collaboration among preschool-age children and the benefits of working with a more socially advanced peer. Early Education and Development, 26(4), 574–593. doi:10.1080/10409289.2015.995567
Wellman, H. M. & Liu, D. (2004). Scaling of Theory-of-Mind tasks. Child Development, 75(2), 523-541. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00691.x
Williford, A. P., Whittaker, J. E. V., Vitiello, V. E., & Downer, J. T. (2013). Children’s engagement within the preschool classroom and their development of self-regulation. Early Education and Development, 24(2), 162–187. doi:10.1080/10409289.2011.628270