Theory of Mind Significance for Psychological Development

3785 words (15 pages) Essay in Psychology

23/09/19 Psychology Reference this

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With reference to at least three themes, which have featured in this module, across two age ranges, and the online article, write and essay of 2500 words discussing ‘Theory of mind and its significance for psychological development.

The theory of mind can be described as the ability to recognise different mental states in others, so in other words, appreciate that others may have different thoughts and ideas to your own as well as different perceptions, desires, intentions and feelings. It is the ability to recognise that everyone is different and being able to understand and predict other people’s behaviour in order to respond in the appropriate way. Having the ability to understand other people’s behaviour and responding to their mental states is what is described as having the ability usually referred to as having and using a Theory of Mind. (Samson, 2013).

The following essay is going to consider how significant theory of mind is for psychological development in early and middle childhood. In addition, it will consider the findings in the article ‘a promising study suggests teachers can train eight-year olds in theory of mind’ by Christian Jarrett. The research carried out in the article will investigate whether it is possible for teachers to be trained in order to teach their students in the theory of mind. In addition to looking at the article supporting this theory, we will also look at ‘talk factory’ and consider any possible links that this may have with supporting this article, and what reasonable actions teachers can take to promote the theory of mind abilities on their students. Finally, the following will also look at 3 other aspects relating to theory of mind which will be communication in middle childhood, representation in middle and early childhood, as-well attachment in middle childhood and their significance for psychological development.

Article Key findings.

This promising study suggests teachers can train students in theory of mind, while further highlighting that theory of mind is the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and recognise that others are entitled to have different thoughts and beliefs. Theory of mind abilities starts of as basic abilities and become more sophisticated with age, eventually developing the ability to understand more complex behaviours and concepts, such as sarcasm. Theory of mind abilities vary from child to child, but this article would suggest that those with more advanced theory of mind skills benefit more with relationships and life achievements later in life. However, this article is putting forward an argument that would suggest children can learn to improve theory of mind in social scenarios. Experiments were conducted by researchers outside of normal classes with eight to nine-year olds and claims benefits could still be seen two months later with only brief teacher led intervention. Four teachers from four different primary schools were trained by Federico Bianco and Serena Lecce on how to deliver theory of mind intervention. This intervention included different social situations, writing questions and answers from another perspective, group discussions, all of which included misunderstandings, sarcasm, faux pas and double bluffing. Each of these sessions lasted for around fifty minutes and teachers gave the lesson to one of their usual class groups. Critically pupils completed tests, one week before and after training as well as two months afterwards. All children showed improvements and those who received the theory of mind training showed greater gains than the control group. These findings suggest that teachers can successfully promote their student’s theory of mind development, it is however important to note that there may be some flaws in these findings. There was no control conditions and this study wasn’t able to show that there were any follow-on benefits from the increases in Theory of Mind abilities for the pupils who received the Theory of Mind intervention. Future research would be needed to show if the training leads to permanent benefits such as social relationships or abilities for school work. The article itself is promising, but as the study wasn’t able to show that there were any permanent follow-on benefits from the apparent increases in Theory of Mind abilities by the pupils who received the Theory of Mind intervention, the overall conclusion would be that more research would be needed.

However, if we consider ‘talk factory’ (Talk Factory, The Open University, 2018), we could consider this as potential evidence to support the idea that theory of mind training in children is possible. Talk factory suggests that having these discussions in a controlled group context helps them to listen to each other better and engage in group discussion, while being respectful of others. Talk factory appears to allow the children to be actively engaged in developing meaning making as they are listening and putting forward their ideas and opinions. It doesn’t contain any subject specific content so is able to be used in a variety of different ways, such as for children who had trouble engaging on group lessons or those who were disruptive or didn’t feel that they could get their voice heard.

Users of talk factory claim that it gives children the skills they will need in later life as children are encouraged to give reasons for their thoughts, ideas, disagreements and while also asking others for their opinion. Negative behaviours that are avoided in talk factory are: interruptions, not listening and not giving and explanation for an answer. The teacher can assess how the discussions are going during that actual class by tapping and recording on the white board. This creates a graph or a chart of all the negative and positive clicks. Teachers can then use this to assess what the balance of behaviour is like during the classroom discussion. One child stated that he is often afraid to say what he really thinks as he worries what others will think of him, however when he uses talk factory, he feels he is free to say whatever he wants. This may be because the ‘rules’ of engagement are set out and are there on the white board during every class. This would most likely eliminate the fear of being interrupted, laughed at or not listened to, in addition to have others agree with them or add a point to their idea. So, what does talk factory have to do with teaching children about theory of mind? It could be possible that it helps children develop the skills needed to assess how others think, what their intentions might be and how and why people come to have an idea or disagreement of opinion.

Before children develop verbal language, they are able to find things funny, usually physical acts or unusual sounds from a parent or carer. More complex verbal humour, starts to appear at about the age of 4. Around this age, children start to demonstrate that they have a belief-desire theory of mind (Wellman 1990, cited in Ibbotson, 2018) which is having the ability to recognise when someone is joking, lying, pretending or confused, thus developing a theory of mind and recognising what the intentions of the individual may be.

The gradual development of children’s theory of mind, particularly during the early years, is by now well researched and documented, but how is communication and language relevant to theory of mind? Theory of mind requires awareness of other people’s beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions and these are largely revealed through conversation. As children’s language skills develop, children are able to engage in conversation, and it is these experiences that help children to develop theory of mind concepts and abilities. For theory of mind to develop, children need both the social environment and communication. Arguably the links between theory of mind and language come from both communicational and representational perspectives because language serves both of these different functions which is, social communication in conversation and internal verbal representation. (Wilde (Ed), 2005). Children who can distinguish a joke from a lie should be able to reason about an individual’s mental state or theory of mind. Theory of mind is the ability to reason about other peoples’ beliefs, desires and intentions. These can be simple or complex for example, first-order mental states are thoughts of the form, ‘he thinks that’, second-order mental states are ‘he thinks that she thinks’. Children need to have developed this ability to recognise the intentions of another person, rather than simply knowing whether something is true or not. Humour relies on intention reading, so for example children with autism will usually have difficulty with understanding humour, or when trying to understand the intentions of others such as lying, irony and jokes, which all play on people’s beliefs, expectations and desires, especially if it is embedded in a social communicative context. (Ibbotson, 2018).

During the ages of about 3 to 4 years children appear to be capable of consistently passing a range of different problems that they previously failed. For example, if we consider belief desire theory of mind again such as Peskin’s (1992) mean monkey experiment, we can observe children around the ages of 4 and older are able to deceive the monkey to achieve the outcome which they desire, whereas younger children usually cannot and will continually play into the mean monkey’s hands. Research carried out by Peskin (1992) found most children under the age of four lacked the ability to read intensions and desires of others, after his findings using the ‘mean monkey’ experiment. During this experiment the researcher uses a monkey puppet to engage with the children, mean monkey then asks the children what their favourite toy is and when the children tell the monkey, the monkey takes this toy leaving them with their least favourite. Through Peskin’s observations he noted that the children of around four years of age and older generally caught on to the monkey’s intensions quickly and were able to deceive the monkey by telling him their least favourite toy was actually their favourite leaving them with their desired toy. Whereas the under four-year olds generally did not realise the monkey’s true intensions, continually leaving them with the least desired toy, therefore failing to monitor their own thinking and recognising mean monkey had a different goal in mind that what he was presenting to them. (Bjorklund, B. F. and Pellegrini, A. D. 2000 cited in box 1 Open University, 2018).

Karmiloff (1992) suggested representations development was built on children’s physical interactions with the world which they then reflect upon and update as they consider new experiences. Whereas Thatcher (1992) believes this occurs mostly because of the maturation of the frontal lobes of the brain, which enables children to compare and reflect upon multiple representations, (meta-representation). (Gjersoe, 2018). Whatever the reason, it is at around this age that children develop the ability to reflect on their own representations, a process referred to as ‘meta-representation’ which is most easily described in relation to theory of mind. It could be possible that the development of the frontal lobes (prefontal cortex) could be responsible for this, while they do not reach full maturity until a person is in their mid-20’s, the development of these could potentially be the reason for the change in mental ability.

Meta-representation involves the ability to hold multiple representations of a scenario and to move flexibly between them in order to make predictions. Classic tests of theory of mind include false-belief tasks. (Gjersoe, 2018). For example, to test a child’s ability to understand false beliefs, we could consider the results of the Sally–Anne task. This task consists of hiding a marble in one of two locations and then leaving the room. Children then watch as a second doll comes into the room and moves the marble from the first location to the second location. Sally re-enters the room and the children are asked to predict where Sally will search for her marble. When participating in this task children will essentially need to ask themselves 3 things in order to pass this task: where will Sally look for her marble? (the belief question), where is the marble really? (the reality question), where was the marble at the beginning? (the memory question). Children must hold at least two representations in mind. First, they need to have a true-belief representation of where the marble really is now that it has been moved, and they must be able to represent Sally’s false-belief, in other words she will think the marble is where she left it. The reality and memory questions essentially serve as control conditions, if the children are not able to answer, then it might suggest that the children didn’t quite understand what was going on. (Etchells, 2019). Children typically do not begin to pass this task until around 4 years of age.

Studies such as ‘maternal mind-mindedness and attachment security as predictors of theory of mind understanding’ (Elizabeth Meins, Charles Fernyhough, Rachel Wainwright, Mani Das Gupta, Emma Fradley, and Michelle Tuckey, 2002) have shown that there may be links between social interactions during early years and children’s subsequent theory of mind. The findings from the Minnesota Parent–Child Project provided some of the first evidence for the predictive significance of early attachment security for children’s social competence with peers. Theory of mind, parenting styles, emotion understanding and cognitive development all attribute to changes in attachment from the early years into middle childhood. John Bowlby outlined the function and form of attachment behaviours across four developmental phases – pre-attachment, attachment-in-the-making, clear-cut attachment and the formation of reciprocal relationships – culminating, at around the age of 4, with children starting to develop attachments that include greater sensitivity to the other partner’s intentions and mental states (Bowlby, 1977, 1988 cited in Shmueli-Goetz 2018). The ability to recognise mental states of one’s self and others, and to use these mental states to predict behaviour, begins at 3–4 years of age.  By age 4, normally developing children are able to reason with false beliefs of others as they are able to tell the difference between appearance and reality (Flavell et al, 1983 cited in Shmueli-Goetz 2018), and the capacity to understand second-order beliefs further develops at around the age of 6 (Perner and Wimmer, 1985 cited in Shmueli-Goetz 2018).

In conclusion by the time a person reaches middle childhood the foundation blocks for understanding others intentions, desires, motives and general behaviours are well established. By this time children have begun to unpack more complex behaviours such as humour, sarcasm, lying and irony, which require a sophisticated theory of mind. Theory of mind is essential for psychological development as you need to be able to read and react to the intentions and behaviours of others to be able to survive in everyday life, otherwise you may fall victim to the cruel intentions of another. Arguably it is impossible to see how one could survive in human culture without having theory of mind as you would not be able to recognise the intensions of others at all. Theory of mind appears to make a big leap in terms of development in most children by around the age of four, it is unclear if this is down to children’s everyday experiences and interactions, or if it could be due to the development of the frontal lobes in the brain (prefontal cortex). Whichever the reason it is important to recognise that social intelligence continues to develop into adulthood.

When considering if it is possible for one to teach someone in theory of mind, it certainly possible to scaffold someone’s learning to reach that point themselves, but more in-depth research is needed to see if a child can successfully be taught theory of mind and be able apply those skills afterwards on their own.

(2573 words).

  • Bjorklund, B. F. and Pellegrini, A. D. (2000) ‘Child development and evolutionary psychology, Child Development vol. 72’, in the Open University (2018) E219 Readings [Online]. Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1265655&section=5. (Accessed 21 January 2019).
  • Bjorklund, B. F. and Pellegrini, A. D. 2000, ‘Child Development and Evolutionary Psychology’, Child Devlopment, vol.71, no.6, pp.1687-1708, in The Open University (2018) Readings [Online]. Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1265655&section=5 (Accessed 17 January 2019).
  • Etchells, P. (2019) The Sally Anne task: a psychological experiment for a post-truth era? The Guardian, [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/science/headquarters/2017/jan/23/sally-anne-task-psychological-experiment-post-truth-false-beliefs (Accessed 21 January 2019).
  • Gjersoe, N. (2018) Open University, Learn2.Open.Ac.Uk, [Online]. Available athttps://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1265625&section=4.2  (Accessed 20 January 2019).
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Study skill

Your evaluation

Getting organised

Managing your time

2

Managing the module materials and content for assignments

2

Setting your own study goals

2

Finding, selecting and organising content

Active reading

3

Making notes from audio and video content

3

Note-taking

2

Using the Open University Library’s online resources

1

Reading critically

2

Evaluating sources of information

2

Engaging with your tutor and fellow students

Contributing to student forums

1

Using online rooms

1

Working with numbers

Reading tables, graphs and charts

1

Understanding simple statistics

2

Presenting numerical information

1

Working with words

Using word-processing software to write essays and practical reports

2

Referencing quotes and ideas

2

Developing your written language skills and use of academic English

2

Completing assignments

Analysing assignment questions

2

Planning and structuring assignments

2

Writing your assignments

2

Using tutor feedback to improve your TMAs

2

Preparing assignments

2

Thinking critically

2

Category

Mean

Getting organised

2.00

Finding, selecting and organising content

2.17

Engaging with your tutor and fellow students

1.00

Working with numbers

1.33

Working with words

2.00

Completing assignments

2.00

 

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