Theory of mind is the tendency or ability to interpret others by labelling mental states onto them. These states include our own biases, beliefs, intentions, thoughts, emotions, desires and opinions. The theory of mind, as the name suggests, includes ‘theories’ that we form for other people’s thoughts and feelings and how they come to exist.
We form these theories based on how people behave and express themselves and by the information we know about them. It is considered an important social skill to understand one’s own and others’ mental states. Theory of mind also involves thinking about thinking. It considers the idea that other people’s feelings and thoughts might be different from our own.
Steps of Theory of Mind
The first step of theory of mind is understanding that others have different desires and wants, and they may act in a way that leads them to getting what they want.
For example, Selena is hungry and likes apples. Kiya is also hungry, but she likes grapes. Both of them have different preferences and so approach different corners of the table to get what they like.
The second step of theory of mind is understanding that people can have different thoughts or opinions on the same thing or event and their thinking could be based on their own assumptions.
For example, The Office is a popular TV show. Kiya seems to really enjoy it, whereas Kevin despises it. Both can have valid opinions on the same show.
3. Seeing Leads To Knowing
The third step of theory of mind is understanding that other people have different experiences, and they might not have seen what you have seen, so they will need extra information to understand.
For example, Joel is an engineer. His grandmother is uneducated. Joel must make extra efforts to make her understand some things, such as where to sign a legal paper. Both have had different experiences and hence, one must make more efforts to make the other understand.
4. False Beliefs
The fourth step of theory of mind is understanding that other people might have false beliefs that are far away from actual reality.
For example, Omar has conspiracy theories about the universe that are clearly questionable. These theories are not actual reality, they are his beliefs.
5. Hidden Feelings
The last step of theory of mind is understanding that other people can conceal their actual feelings or emotions and express a different emotion altogether.
For example, Miya felt bad that Garie forgot her birthday. But she did not want to seem childish or immature, so she pretended that she didn’t mind, in front of Garie. She hid her original emotions.
How Does It Develop?
The theory of the mind typically develops around the age between 3 to 5 years. However, infants first need to be familiarized with the following tasks:
- How to understand others’ intentions: Children need to understand the difference between positive and negative intentions, the reason behind people’s actions, etc. They need to learn that people act according to what they want or what their goals are.
- How to pay attention: They need to learn how to pay attention to the stimuli and people around them in order to develop the theory of mind. They need to learn how to selectively focus on certain stimuli and objects.
- The ability to imitate or mirror others should be learnt so that they are able to form relationships and connections and move towards developing theory of mind.
As children grow up and have different social experiences and interactions, the theory of mind grows. Children understand that others can have different thoughts or feelings through interacting with their family, friends, classmates, teachers and having different experiences through games, stories and education. It is a developmental theory but can be applied to adults as well.
Some studies have found that children can do some tasks revolving around theory of mind well and some tasks, not well. Examples of these tasks are mentioned below.
For instance, they may be able to interpret mental states in some situations and not interpret them in other contexts. Most children can learn major tasks under theory of mind by the age of 4, but some skills continue to grow and develop as one grows from age to another.
False Belief Tasks
These are experiments that test the theory of mind and are mostly done with toddlers or children. These tasks are done with children to assess if they understand that others might have false beliefs that do not align with actual reality.
An example of a false belief task is an experiment called ‘Smarties.’ In this experiment, there is a box that seems like it holds a candy called ‘Smarties.’ The examiner asks the child what is in the box, the child is likely to reply that it is a candy called ‘smarties’ (the name ‘smarties’ was mentioned on the box).
Then the examiner asks the child to open the box. The child is surprised to find pencils inside that box. Then, the child is asked to predict what his or her friend would think of the contents inside the box. The correct answer here is Smarties, the candy. As the child’s friend was not present during this experiment, he or she would predict the content to be somewhat like its box. They would have the false belief of candy being inside the box.
Another example of a false belief experiment is the Sally-Anne task. In this experiment, there are 2 dolls, Sally and Anne and a child who is being examined observes them. Sally and Anne are in the same room, with Sally’s basket and Anne’s box. Sally has a red ball which she puts inside her basket. Then, she leaves the room and Anne is alone.
Anne takes the ball out of the basket and puts it in her bag. Sally returns to the room and starts looking for her ball. The child is asked where Sally will look for her ball. The correct answer to this task would be Sally’s basket, as Sally is unaware of what happened while she wasn’t in the room, and she has a false belief that her ball must be in her basket.
This experiment was conducted on neurotypical, Autistic and Down syndrome children. It was found that 85% neurotypical children and 86% children with Down syndrome answered correctly. 80% of children with autism could not answer correctly.
Role Of Language In Theory Of Mind And Its Development
Language seems to be connected to the development of theory of mind. There are studies that indicate that theory of mind develops through our use of language. Children hear and understand the beliefs and thoughts of other people through understanding their language first. They listen when people around them talk about emotions and feelings.
All of this is understood because children, firstly, understand the language that is used to convey these thoughts, feelings, or opinions. Hence, language may be the key in development of theory of mind. A cognitive psychologist conveyed that language is more imperative to understand others, even more important than visual senses.
How To Apply The Theory Of Mind
- Working on a group project together by cooperation and teamwork requires understanding others and synching ideas with them.
- Supporting a friend through verbal and non-verbal encouragement when you notice their facial expression and can predict their mental state to be sad.
- Developing and learning empathy by understanding theory of mind.
- Ascertaining your importance in a person’s life by predicting how they feel about you (through noticing their actions, tone, and expression of emotions that give your insight about their mental state).
- Teaching someone a new skill by understanding their learning style and how much prior knowledge they have.
- Day-to-day social interactions are made easier using theory of mind. As we understand that other people can have different priorities, experiences, and opinions, we are more likely to be tolerant and accepting, making social interactions easier.
- Logical reasoning can also be inferred through theory of mind. Strategic games also require utilizing theory of mind.
- We can understand others’ intentions by theory of mind. Understanding others’ intentions is essential to form an emotional bonding in any physical relationship as well as in business negotiations.
Complications About Theory Of Mind
- Schizophrenia: People suffering from schizophrenia might not be able to completely develop the theory of mind. For instance, they display little or no understanding of false beliefs and sometimes, cannot understand others’ intentions or motivations.
- Autism: People suffering from autism also cannot fully develop their theory of mind. Some symptoms of autism such as not being able to understand others’ opinions or thinking, come under theory of mind. They also cannot understand others’ perspectives. Hence, they are unable to display a good performance at theory of mind tasks.
- Asperger’s Syndrome: People suffering from Asperger’s syndrome also cannot fully develop expertise in theory of mind tasks. They involve similar, though less severe symptoms of autism.
- Social Anxiety: People suffering from social anxiety disorder have difficulty in interpreting others’ mental states. Hence, they also do not have complete expertise in theory of mind. They may find it difficult to maintain relationships as they do not completely understand others’ mental states. This can make the relationship feel incomplete or the connection might not be deep enough to sustain. Others can also feel unseen or unheard when their mental states are not understood by people suffering from social anxiety, further damaging the relationship.
- Depression: People suffering from depression also have difficulty in theory of mind development. They are unable to process contextual information about others. Not being able to process important information about others can damage relationships and self-esteem. When someone is going through depression, they are more likely to take things personally, and not process the overall situation or the context. This can make them irritable or sad, and sometimes tough to handle, which can affect them and the people they are close to.
“Theory of mind and its related abilities develop in toddlers as young as 15 months old and deteriorate with age.”
Theory of mind is tested using a false belief task, as described above. This task includes the ability to understand that people can have beliefs about the world that are different from actual reality. Research has indicated that the ability used in false belief tasks starts developing in toddlers as young as 15 months old and deteriorates with age.
Study By: Daniel M. Bernstein and colleagues
Aim: To investigate performance of young and old adults on a false belief task.
- 37 older adults, 20 middle-aged adults and 38 younger adults participated in this study.
- All participants were assessed for neuropsychological abilities through a test. And then, a false belief task was administered to them.
- Verbal memory, executive functioning, processing speed, working memory and vocabulary were also tested for all the participants.
- It was found that older adults displayed more false belief bias, followed by middle aged adults and then, younger adults.
- This study concluded that theory of mind declines with age, irrespective of age-related declines or changes.