The term theory of mind is a major concept within developmental psychology and is used widely to explain how one gains an understanding of other people’s thoughts and feelings. Children are said to develop a theory of mind between the ages of between three and four. This is the crucial time in their lives when they develop concepts of what goes on in their own, and other people’s minds. They are said to develop a particular framework that organizes their minds into different sections: dreams, beliefs, thoughts and memories, for example. They can also begin to understand why people behave the way they do. There is a vast amount of research in this particular field and is still ongoing to try and discover more about why we develop this theory of mind and what happens when we do not.
Piaget argued that small children are too egocentric to be able to see something from another’s point of view, or to appreciate the difference between someone’s point of view and their own.1 If this is the case then the child must go through some stage of reasoning or something similar in order to develop a fully functioning theory of mind. Wellman et al (1990) believes children develop theory of mind through a process of belief – desire reasoning.
They predict people’s behaviour according to what they think their beliefs and desires are. This is a very social explanation of theory of mind as it not really focused on how the thought processes occur within the child but what they believe to be true based on interactions surrounding them. Flavell (1986) was concerned with children’s ability to distinguish between appearance and reality. He conducted a study where children where shown objects or materials that were really one type of thing but appeared to be another kind of thing. He discovered that 3 yr olds have a hard time separating the two, whereas 4 or 5 yr olds were better at understanding the differences between appearance and reality. This evidence is backed up by research from Wimmer & Perner (1983) who suggests that children have problems with contradictory evidence and cannot deal with two different representations of the same thing.
One of the most prominent tests to determine one’s theory of mind development is the false-belief test. This was first used by Premack ; Woodruff (1978) on chimpanzees but later developed to be used on children; the ‘Sally-Anne task’ involves a picture of two girls playing with a marble, then Sally puts the marble in Box A and leaves the room. Whilst Sally has gone, Anne moves the marble from Box to Box B and Sally enters the room shortly after that. The child is then asked ‘Where will Sally look for the marble?’ Results show that children of 4 and 5 yrs old say Box A but children under 3 yrs say Box B because that is where they know the marble is, and cannot understand that Sally does not have that knowledge because she was out of the room. It has been suggested that it is not a lack of cognitive functioning that causes children of a certain age to fail these tasks; it is simply a lack of memory. However, Gopnik ; Slaughter (1991) found that children do not remember past beliefs so much, but they can remember things that have happened in the past, things they have seen for example5. So this suggests that maybe there is some kind of cognitive disability in young children, not a lack of sufficient memory.
One of the arguments that furthermore suggests theory of mind comes from a cognitive ability, not a social advantage is that of Russel et al (1991) who suggests that children lack one of the most fundamental executive functions: inhibition.6 He conducted a study where children were shown a number of windows and behind some of them were treats; in order for the children to get the treats they had to point to a window that did not contain a treat. They found 3 yr olds found this very difficult and continued to pick the window that contained the treat, showing their inability to inhibit their ‘pick the treat’ response.
However, in contrast to this research by Jenkins ; Astington (1996) suggests family size has a great importance in how a child develops a theory of mind.7 They found that children with bigger families’ performed better on false-belief tasks. This may be due to the role of siblings in helping the child with the social side of development. It had previously been suggested that increased family size is important for children with low linguistic skill and siblings help to facilitate language acquisition which overall improves performance in false-belief tasks. In addition to this however, recent research suggests that it is not family size per se, it is older siblings that have beneficial effects on a child’s theory of mind. Ruffman et al (1998) found that siblings encourage and stimulate pretend play that represents things that happen in every day life so it helps them gain a better mental understanding; aiding them in false-belief tasks.
Lewis et al (1996) denies the idea that siblings are better tutors than adults due to research that gave a series of false believe tasks to 3 and 4 yr olds and found that increasing the number of adults that children have interaction with is the single most important factor in developing theory of mind. Gummins (1998) suggests social interaction within siblings is in fact very important due to children competing with each other for resources, and since older siblings will more than likely have a physical advantage over younger ones, they are less motivated to develop a superior mental state, so the younger siblings try to develop more, gaining an understanding of how the older one’s mind works so they can beat them mentally rather than physically. Gordon (1986) suggests that it is not siblings or adult company that improves theory of mind, but it is the child’s ability to partake in mental simulation; in order for children to develop a theory of mind, they need to ‘pretend’ to be that person, or put themselves in the others’ ‘shoes’. So children can infer the actions and/or behaviour of another person by using their own mind as a model for the others’.
The cognitive theorists are mostly concerned with how the children pass the false-belief tasks and set most of their concepts around that one idea. However, Wellman et al (2001) claim 3 yr olds are just as capable of completing the false-belief tasks as older children but they are limited by language, information processing limits or overly demanding tasks, so future research should be concerned with overcoming these problems in order to get an accurate and valid result. Clements ; Perner10 (1994) had already considered this critique and tested children’s implicit understanding of the false-belief task by recording not what they children said, but where they looked first. Results showed that 3yr olds do have a theory of mind as they looked at the right box first, but then changed their minds. This study was replicated by Garnum & Ruffman (2001) who also agreed that children’s implicit understanding of the world and the things around them exceed their ability to vocalize these thoughts, which is true for many of the developmental processes.
As mentioned earlier, it is interesting to find out what happens if one does not develop a theory of mind, for whatever reason. Baron-Cohen (1995) believed that the theory of mind has improved throughout evolution and it is the fundamental basis for human social intelligence11. He also suggested that autism is a form of ‘mind-blindedness’ meaning that autistic children constantly fail on false-belief tasks despite exceeding the required level for other non-social tasks. If you compare this to children with Down’s syndrome for example, who perform better in false-belief tasks but worse in social tasks.
Overall this information suggests that it is not the social surrounding that affects the child’s developing theory of mind, but an innate cognitive ability, that may be impaired or improved by various conditions. Leslie (1997) also suggests that theory of mind is an innate cognitive structure that automatically develops between the ages of 3 and 4 yrs old. Astington (2001) however, claims Wellman et al are too simplistic in their concrete views of false-belief in relation to theory of mind; she suggests that you cannot infer a complete picture of a child’s theory of mind from their passing one false-belief task. They have to show a metarepresentation; meaning they are able to represent a situation in terms of their thoughts and feelings towards it, as well as another persons representation of the situation, and also representing both of their relationships to the given situation. Perner (1991) also agree that this metarepresentation is a very good indication of whether or not a child has developed a theory of mind.
Another very interesting aspect of theory of mind may be considered to be both a cognitive and a social explanation is the idea of deception as an aid to help the development of theory of mind. Teasing and playing tricks on each other is a big part of childhood and is a clear indication that children may develop a theory of mind earlier that research suggests. Deception is only possible when someone knows something the other does know. In order to do this the child must firstly be able to determine what they know and what the other persons does or does not know, and then they have to keep it to themselves, deliberately withholding. If a child did not have a theory of mind then deception would not work. Hala & Chandler (1996) suggested children are better at false belief tasks when they help to plan the deception, compared to when they simply observe.15 Sullivan & Winner (1993) agreed with this idea as their study showed children a tube of smarties and asked them to guess what was inside, when the children replied with ‘smarties’ the tube was opened to reveal a pencil. Now the tube was closed again and they were asked to guess what other children would think was inside, 3 yr olds generally said that other children would think there was a pencil inside; showing a lack of theory of min; however, when the children were allowed to join in with ‘tricking’ their peers they performed better at this false -belief task.
It is clear from the amount of research in this subject that it is very interesting and there are many conflicting ideas and concepts, however, the area of cognitive psychology does seem to be the most prominent at this time. The idea of the innate ability of theory of mind is one that is easy to comprehend as we see it in our everyday lives. It would be fair to agree with the ideas of theorist such as Piaget who believe in a series of stages that children develop through, each at their own pace but generally in accordance with each other. It seems plausible that this idea of theory of mind may work in much the same way as the overall development of children; it is one of those stages that we all go through at a certain point in our childhood. At the same time the social aspects of this theory are also easy to accept since they are obvious to everyday life and anyone with siblings, for example, will be able to agree or disagree depending on their own experiences. It is not doubtful that our environment does affect the way we develop and our social surroundings more than likely either aid or slow down our development, not just of theory of mind but many other developments that children go through during childhood.
1 H. Gleitman et al, Psychology 5th edition, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1999
2 D.F. Bjorklund, Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences, Wadsworth, 2005
3 K. Durkin, Developmental Social Psychology from infancy to old age, Blackwell. 1995
4 D.F. Bjorklund, Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences, Wadsworth, 2005
5 D.F. Bjorklund, Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences, Wadsworth, 2005
6 D.F. Bjorklund, Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences, Wadsworth, 2005
7 D.F. Bjorklund, Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences, Wadsworth, 2005
8 D.F. Bjorklund, Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences, Wadsworth, 2005
9 .F. Bjorklund, Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences, Wadsworth, 2005
10 H. Gleitman et al, Psychology 5th edition, W.W. Norton ; Company, Inc, 1999
11 D.F. Bjorklund, Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences, Wadsworth, 2005
12 D.F. Bjorklund, Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences, Wadsworth, 2005
13 J, Astington, The Future of Theory-of-Mind Research: Understanding Motivational States, the Role of Language, and Real World Consequences, Child Development, May/June 2001, Vol. 72: 3, pp 696-687
14 K. Durkin, Developmental Social Psychology from infancy to old age, Blackwell. 1995
15 .F. Bjorklund, Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences, Wadsworth, 2005
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