To be human is to be aware and to understand not only the mental state of oneself but also of
others. The ability to recognize that each and every individual has a mental state consisting of
belief’s, emotions, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own
(Premack and Woodruff, 1978). It is not innate as it develops gradually in an individual but
that is not to say that theory of mind is absent in infants. The development of a theory of
mind is pivotal to child development as it helps children to understand their social
environment. This essay will explain with empirical evidence how theory of mind is not an
all-or-none phenomenon but rather is something that emerges and evolves through the growth
of an individual.
From birth, infants have an awareness of their mental states and also have an inter-
personal awareness that allows them to recognize the emotional states of others. (Legerstee,
M., 2005). Infants are also able to determine what adults know based on direct, triadic
interactions with them (Moll & Tomasello, 2007). But unlike adults, who have a well-
developed theory of mind, infants cannot yet infer the full range of the mental states of
people. Research conducted on Facial Imitation, an aspect of theory of mind, suggested that
infants did not have the capacity imitate facial gestures. A major development was said to
occur only at about 8-12 months of age when infants were able to imitate different
tongue and lip movements (Andrew N. Meltzoff, 1999).
However, this developmental progression was proved wrong in a research study
conducted by Andrew N. Meltzoff and Keith Moore (1997) wherein it was shown that even
2-3-week olds could imitate lip and finger movements. They suggested that facial
imitation is a matching to target process dependent on active intermodal mapping. By using
proprioceptive feedback produced by infants’ movements and comparing it with the
visually specified target, they were able to demonstrate how infants could monitor their own
actions and compare this with what they see. In another study by Meltzoff and Moore (1983),
infants tested in a hospital setting showed successful imitation of oral movements proving
that infants did have the capacity for behavioural matching and therefore expressed a theory
Infants also show joint attention skills around 20 months of age which exhibits their
growing understanding of others and is a precursor to the development of theory of mind
(Charman et al., 2000). During the same time, they begin to differentiate between objects and
how they think of objects and this is evident through pretend play (Mazza et. al, 2007). These
studies evidently exhibit that infants do show some theory of mind.
As infants grow, they develop the ability of false-belief attribution. False belief
understanding is the ability to predict the behaviour of an individual based on the information
provided even if the information differs from one’s own beliefs (Call J. & Tomasello M.,
2008). False Belief’s tasks are an effective way to measure false belief understanding in a
child. The Sally-Anne task conducted by Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) is the most frequently
used version of the false belief task in which children are presented with the story of two
dolls named Sally, who has a basket and a marble and Anne, who has a box. Sally puts her marble in her basket and leaves. In her absence, Anne takes the marble from the basket and places it in her box. The children are then asked to predict where Sally will look for the marble when she returns. Children of 3 years predicted that Sally would look for the marble in the box, exhibiting a lack of false belief whereas children of 4 years answered correctly by pointing to the basket.
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Another experiment made use of the unexpected contents method to measure false belief understanding in children. In the Smarties task conducted by Perner, Leekam, and Wimmer (1987) children are shown a box of smarties and asked to predict what’s inside. Once the child guesses ‘smarties’, the box is opened and is shown to actually contain pencils. The child is then asked what another person, who hasn’t seen the contents of the box would think was inside the box. Younger children say that the other person will think that pencils are in the box whereas children who are 4 years successfully respond that the other person would think there were smarties in the box. These studies indicate that false belief understanding develops by the age of 4.
However, results of a recent research study have indicated that false belief understanding
is present much earlier. Using the violation of expectation method, Onishi and Baillargeon
(2005) conducted familiarization trials on infants to test their understanding of false beliefs.
In these trials, there were two boxes, one green and one yellow and a toy watermelon was
placed between the two boxes. In the first trial, the actor played with the toy, then placed the
toy in the green box and the trial ended with the actor’s hand still inside the green box. The
second and third trials consisted of the actor reaching inside the green box so as to hold the
toy. In the next two steps which were the false belief induction trials, the toy was moved to
the yellow box from the green box in the absence of the actor (false belief-green condition).
Then, in the actor’s presence, the toy was moved back to the green box from the yellow box
and again, back to the green box in the actor’s absence allowing her to have a false belief that
the toy is still in the yellow box (false belief-yellow condition). Finally, in the last trial, the
agent reaches inside either of the two boxes and the infant’s looking times are measured. It
was found that infants looked longer when the actor reached inside the box that she falsely
believed the toy to be in rather than the other box in the false belief conditions. Other
experiments conducted using the violation of expectation method like understanding of false
belief in 13-month olds (Surian, Caldi & Sperber, 2007) have concluded with similar results.
These experiments demonstrate that young infants have a sense of false belief understanding
though maybe not to the same level as a 4-year-old would because as a child reaches the ag
of 4, they would’ve fully grasped the concept of false belief understanding due to which even
if the style of a false belief experiment was different, the child would still be successful in the
By the time a child is 5 years old, they develop the ability to selectively trust reliable
sources which correlates with theory of mind development. In an experiment conducted by
Vanderbilt et al. (2011), children were given advice on the location of a hidden object by
informants who were either helpers and gave the right advice or trickers and gave incorrect
advice. 3 and 4-year-old children were shown to accept help from both types of informants
whereas 5-year olds preferred advice from helpers.
By the age of 6, children have a well-developed, adult-like theory of mind (Keysar, Lin
& Barr, 2003). But even adults at times do not make proper use of their theory of mind. In an
experiment conducted by Keysar et al. (2003), an adult participant was made to hide a roll of
tape in an opaque paper bag. Another participant, the director, is unaware of the roll of tape
in the bag and the adult is aware of the director’s ignorance towards the roll of tape in the
bag. Now, hypothetically, the director tells the adult to move the tape in reference to a
cassette tape visible to the both of them. The experiment studied if the adult would move the
roll of tape instead of the cassette despite knowing the director’s ignorance to it and the
results showed that adults do not always rely on their theory of mind.
Theory of mind is crucial for social integration and a lack of theory of mind
compromises the development of children (Hamilton, Hoogenhout & Malcom-Smith, 2016).
As theory of mind plays a key role in the development of social competence, individuals
with autism spectrum disorders who lack theory of mind abilities show impairments in social
skills (Mazza et. al, 2007).
This essay discussed theory of mind and empirically showcased how it is not innate but a process that develops through stages in an individual. It progressively develops in an infant as they grow from the stage of imitation, joint attention and pretend play to distinguish between appearance and reality, false-belief apprehension and the trusting of good and bad intentions. By the age of 4, children significantly improve and are successful on the tasks of theory of mind indicating a well-developed theory of mind. In conclusion, theory of mind is not an all-or-none phenomenon and develops gradually in an individual.
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