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Is Theory of Mind an ‘all-or-none’ Phenomenon?

Info: 2331 words (9 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in Psychology

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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

of mind.

      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.


Reference List

  • Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”?     
  • Cognition, 21(1), 37-46.
  • Call, J.C., & Tomasello, M.T. (2008). Trends in cognitive science. Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later, 12, 187–192.
  • Charman, Baron-Cohen, Swettenham, Baird, Cox, & Drew. (2000). Testing joint attention, imitation, and play as infancy precursors to language and theory of mind. Cognitive Development, 15(4), 481-498.
  • Hamilton, K., Hoogenhout, M., & Malcolm-Smith, S. (2016). Neurocognitive considerations when assessing Theory of Mind in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Child & Adolescent Mental Health, 28(3), 233-241.
  • Keysar, Lin, & Barr. (2003). Limits on theory of mind use in adults. Cognition, 89(1), 25-41.
  • Legerstee, M. (2005). Infants’ sense of people: Precursors to a theory of mind. Cambridge University Press.
  • Mazza, Monica, Mariano, Melania, Peretti, Sara, Masedu, Francesco, Pino, Maria Chiara, & Valenti, Marco. (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(5), 1369-1379.
  • Meltzoff, A. N., & Moore, M. K. (1997). Explaining Facial Imitation: A Theoretical Model. Early Development & Parenting, 6(3-4), 179–192.
  • Meltzoff, Andrew N. (1999). Origins of Theory of Mind, Cognition and Communication. Journal of Communication Disorders, 32(4), 251-69.
  • Moll, Henrike, & Tomasello, Michael. (2007). How 14- and 18-Month-Olds Know What Others Have Experienced. Developmental Psychology, 43(2), 309-317.
  • Onishi, K., & Baillargeon, R. (2005). Do 15-month-old infants understand false beliefs? Science (New York, N.Y.), 308(5719), 255-8.
  • Perner, J., Leekam, S. R., & Wimmer, H. (1987). Three‐year‐olds’ difficulty with false belief: The case for a conceptual deficit. British journal of developmental psychology, 5(2), 125-137.
  • Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(4), 515-526.
  • Surian, L.S., Caldi, S.C., & Sperber, D.S. (2007). Psychological science. Attribution of beliefs by 13-month-old infants, 18(7), 580-586.
  • Vanderbilt, Kimberly E., Liu, David, & Heyman, Gail D. (2011). The Development of Distrust. Child Development, 82(5), 1372-1380.
  • Wellman, H., Cross, D., & Watson, J. (2001). Meta‐Analysis of Theory‐of‐Mind Development: The Truth about False Belief. Child Development, 72(3), 655-684.
  • Wimmer, H.M., & Perner, J.P. (1983). Cognition. Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception, 13, 103–128.


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