Theory of Mind

You can’t fool children, they understand everything. Children can detect whether you have good intentions or not. Children are very smart; they can understand from your expressions. Be alert! How you behave around your child, they can imitate your behaviors easily.
This are few of the statements that we hear from elders, parents and people around us.
Yes! The statements are true! Children have the power to do all of those things. Have you ever wondered what is the psychological or scientific reason behind it? How can they do it in such young age? Psychologists call it “Theory of Mind”

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, and knowledge — to ourselves and others. Theory of mind is an important part of social understanding and social cognition.
It is called a theory of mind rather than a theory of behavior because much of people’s behavior depends on what goes on in their minds. We explain our own actions by referring to our beliefs, desires, and other mental states, and we attempt to interpret and predict other people’s actions by considering their mental states. (Astington & Dack, 2008)


David Premack and Guy Woodruff (1978) are the first ones who discussed about Theory of Mind. They wrote an article, “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?”

The researchers showed a video to chimpanzee about a man trying to reach towards the banana hanging on the branch. The chimpanzee was shown two photographs and had to choose the correct response to the problem. The chimpanzees choose the correct option (man standing on the box to get the banana).
The purpose of the study was on the animal’s recognition of man’s desires or intention. After the publication of this paper, psychologists and researchers all over the world grew curious about how theory of mind develops in adults and children, which led to many more experiments, researches to investigate Theory of mind.
Studies were carried out to understand the developmental pathway, cognition of human mind and deficits of theory of mind.

How do psychologists Assess Theory of Mind?

False-Task Belief

The False-Belief Task was developed by two Austrian psychologists, Heinz Wimmer and Josef Perner, used False-Belief task as an assessment tool to study how and at what age children and toddlers develop theory of mind. In the task, the children were told a story by the experimenters using dolls and boxes as a prop.

Task given to the children

Mother returns from a shopping trip with some chocolate. Her little boy, Maxi, puts the chocolate away in the cupboard. Then he goes outside to play. Mother takes the chocolate from the cupboard and uses some to make a cake. Then she puts the remaining chocolate away in a drawer, not in the cupboard, and goes upstairs. Maxi then comes back inside, hungry and wanting some chocolate. (Ashtington, 2008)
The children had to identify the false beliefs of the character (Max) and what he will do in such situation (where he will look for the chocolates). If the child says that Max will look for the chocolates in the cupboard refers to success on false-belief task and that the children has developed an understanding that people act not on the basis of the way things actually are in the world but on the basis of the way they ‘think’ that they are.
The researchers found that children from 4 to 5 years of age were able to identify other beliefs and what they will be thinking. The children who were younger than 4 years of age were not able to answer the questions correctly. In the similar way, many tasks such as Sally-Anne task was used to assess development of “Theory of Mind” in children, toddlers and also people with mental disorders and special children.

How does Theory of Mind Develop?

The basic premise of Theory of Mind is the ability of the children to predict human behavior. Psychologists says that children who passes the False-belief task are capable of metarepresentation- ability to understand other people beliefs, desires and what others think which is different from what they (children) think. Theory of Mind is the ability to attribute to different types of mental states. There are types of mental states- believe, want(desire), intend. All three are interconnected.

Types of Mental State Content
Believe Car is kept in the cupboard
Want (desire) To play with the car
Intend (action) Gets up and open the cupboard

The desire and belief when combine together makes the child to take some action to fulfil it determines that child understands his/her desire and takes action to fulfil it. There is a difference between beliefs and desire. Beliefs are either True or False. Desires are either fulfilled or unfulfilled.

Beliefs are usually aligned with the world. If the belief corresponds to way the things are in the world. It’s true. If the beliefs do not correspond to way the things are in the world. It’s a false belief. The false belief can be changed by making it fit to what it is actually in the world- “mind-to-world” situation.

In the case of Max story, He had belief that the chocolate is in the cupboard. The actual place of the chocolate has been changed to the drawer. We can change the false-belief of Max by telling him the truth (mind-to-world)

Desires act as a motivation to carry out the action to achieve the desirable outcome. If the outcome achieved aligns with the desire than it is fulfilled, if the outcome is not achieved than the desire is unfulfilled. The intention (action) works as the mediator (middle man) between the desire and outcome.

Example: Mother wants to make her daughter (tina) happy. Tina wants a new set of dolls since a long time. So, mother goes and buy the new set of doll and gits it to Tine. Tina becomes super happy when she sees the doll and seeing her happy, Mother is happy.

Mental States Content
Desire To make her daughter happy
Intend (action) Buy a new set of dolls
Outcome Tina is happy (Mother is happy)
The actions are always carried out with the aim of fulfilling the desire and achieving the desired outcome. This is called Intentional Causation– The idea that desires are fulfilled only if a person’s intention causes the action that brings about the outcome.
The belief and desire to gain something when combined with the intend (determination) of achieving which cause us to behave in a certain way (action) to get the desired outcome. The method or concepts of false-belief and Intentional Causality is used to understand whether the children have developed Theory of Mind skills.
Period Age-Range Major Development
Infancy Birth-18 months old Social Perception
Toddler and pre-school 18 months old – 3 years old Mental Awareness
Pre-school 4 and 5 Years old Meta-representation
School Age 6 years onwards Recursion and Interpretation

The child starts developing from their birth. In new born baby to 8 month of age, social perception is developed. The developing behaviors are Imitation, Dyadic smiling and vocalizing, Joint attention: Follow other’s pointing and gaze Direct other’s attention with point and gaze- Social referencing, discriminate animates from inanimate, Discriminate goals from movements , Sensitive to agents’ knowledge state.

Important changes come at about 18 months of age, when children clearly begin to show awareness of the subjective nature of psychological experience. This is seen in Piagetian sensorimotor stage 6 behaviors, such as, finding invisibly displaced objects, and solving problems by insight, language development, distinguish between mental and real, pretend play, Aware of intentions, desires, and emotions, desire-based reasoning , aware of perception and knowledge acquisition, Use mental-state terms.

The children of 3 years old can understand the desires and intend but, unable to distinguish between the beliefs whether they are true or false. The ability of meta-representation- to understand the true or false belief and taking those beliefs into account to predict the action of other is developed when children are around 4 years old. The development of Metrepresentation is associated with number of other behaviors including, able to understand false belief in self and others, understanding deception, can distinguish appearance and reality, understand aspects of knowledge acquisition, distinguish between desire and intention, understand intentional causation, understand belief-based emotions.

There are further developments in children after the preschool years. The main developments in theory of mind at the beginning of the school years is an understanding of mental-state recursion, that is, the embedding of one mental state in another. Children become aware that others don’t have belief and desires for the world. They also hold beliefs and contents about the other person which can be false. These beliefs are also called Second-Order Beliefs.

Children acquire the ability to understand second-order representations involving, able to understand second- and higher-order mental states, recognize interpretive diversity, understand indirect speech, for example, irony and metaphor, aware of white lies and persuasion, use and comprehend complex mental-state terms, understand inference, ambiguity, referential opacity, aware of stream of consciousness and introspect.

Factors Affecting Theory of Mind

The main focus of research so far has been identifying factors, both within the child and in the child’s environment, that are associated with the development of theory of mid, which some children achieve soon after they are 3 years of age and others not until age 5 years. A number of factors, such as executive functioning, language ability, and social competence, are correlated with the understanding of Theory of Mind.

Executive functions are self-regulatory cognitive processes, such as inhibition, planning, resistance to interference, and control of attention and motor responses. During the years from 3 to 5, children’s performance on executive function tasks is correlated with their performance on false-belief tasks. Some researchers believe that executive functioning is actually required for children to develop a theory of mind, in that children must be able to control their own representations of the world before understanding others’ representation.

Pretend Play is engaging in imagined states where they fantasize certain objects or create a world that do not exist. Researchers argue that pretend play encourages theory-of-mind development and this is supported by data showing that pre-schoolers who score higher on theory-of-mind tasks engage in more fantasy and pretense.

Language Ability is one of the factors that contribute in the development of theory of mind. Many studies have shown relations between false-belief understanding and various language skills, including general language, receptive vocabulary, semantics, and syntax independent of age. Higher the language skills of the children better they can understand the complex mental state terms used by the experimenters and can perform better on theory of mind tasks.

Family Environment has also been identified as one of the factors. A number of studies show that the kind of conversational experiences that children have is related to theory-of-mind development. The parents should talk similarly like adults with their children as it contributes to their language ability. Children living in join families develop theory of mind skills sooner as they experience teasing, jokes, pranks, deception among their siblings.

Many studies have been conducted of theory of mind with Autistic children. The finding suggested that only about 20% of children with autism succeed on standard false-belief tasks. Most striking, though, is their difficulty in understanding other people’s beliefs, as shown in their performance on the false-belief task. Children with autism also tend to fail theory-of-mind tasks that require deception and have difficulty understanding belief-based emotions.

Studies have shown that people with mental health disorders and behaviors problems have issues in development of theory of mind skills. A 2007 meta-analysis (an analysis that combines the results of multiple empirical studies) reveals a stable deficit of theory of mind in people with schizophrenia, as evidenced by their consistent, poor performance on false belief tasks (Sprong et al., 2007).

individuals with depression struggle with theory of mind and experience deficits in integrating contextual informational about other people (Wolkenstein et al., 2011) as well as deficits in theory of mind decoding (Lee et al., 2005).


Ruhl , C. (2020, Aug 07). Theory of mind. Simply Psychology. Wellman, H. M. & Liu, D. (2004). Scaling theory of mind tasks. Child Development, 75, 759-763.
Sprong, M., Schothorst, P., Vos, E., Hox, J., & Van Engeland, H. (2007). Theory of mind in schizophrenia: meta-analysis. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 191(1), 5-13.
Astington JW and Baird JA (eds.) (2005) Why Language Matters for Theory of Mind. New York: Oxford University Press Astington JW (1993) The Child’s Discovery of the Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press J.W. Astington, L.A. Dack, (2008). Theory of Mind.. Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development, Pages 365-379 Gopnik, A., & Astington, J. W. (1988). Children’s understanding of changes in their mental states. Child Development, 62, 98–110.

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