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Theory of Mind. Lisa A. Burckell December 17, 2004. Context Definition Developmental context Methodology - False-belief task Theoretical explanations Theory of mind and autism Knowns and unknowns. What we will cover.

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Theory of Mind

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Theory of mind l.jpg

Theory of Mind

Lisa A. Burckell

December 17, 2004

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Developmental context

Methodology - False-belief task

Theoretical explanations

Theory of mind and autism

Knowns and unknowns

What we will cover

Context l.jpg

Philosophers have been asking questions concerning the mind for centuries

More recently, questions focused on:

How is an understanding of the mind acquired?

Is it inborn?


Context cont l.jpg

An understanding of the mind is fundamental to an understanding of the social world:

Allows us to distinguish between accidental and intended behavior, and truth and deception.

Falls within the domain of social cognition

Context (cont.)

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Origins of research concerning the development of the mind


Childhood realism: Children could not distinguish mental from physical phenomenon

Current research contradicts Piaget’s original finding and conceptualization

Context (cont.)

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Theory of mind: proposed to explain this acquisition process and development

It is construed as the “…understanding that people are cognitive beings with rich mental lives that are available to themselves and not to others” (p. 466, Shaffer, 1996).


Definition cont l.jpg

Wellman (e.g., 2002)

Constructed over the course of development

Focuses on a mentalistic understanding of persons that includes a sense of their internal representations (i.e., beliefs).

Related to perspective taking and empathy

Ultimately, there are numerous definitions, ranging in degree of specificity

Definition (cont.)

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What if you had no theory of mind?

Unable to draw meaningful psychological inferences about your behavior and that of others

Literal interpretation of the world

(Incorrectly) Predict that people will always behave in ways consistent with desires

Fail to understand that a person’s beliefs affect her or her actions as well.

Definition (cont.)

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Infants – Learning biases

Predisposition to look at human faces

Babies can distinguish humans from nonhumans at 5-8 weeks

Imitate humans but not objects

Habituate to spontaneous movement from humans but not to objects 7 months (e.g., Spelke et al., 1995)

Social referencing (e.g., looking toward mother) - 10-14 months

Developmental ContextHow an understanding of the mind develops

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Language development

Perspective taking

Understanding of emotion and desire (2 yrs.)

Pretense – engage in make-believe and pretend play (relation to false-belief task) (2 yrs.)

Purposeful deception

Use of words such as “think,” “believe,” etc. (3 yrs. & older)

Developmental Context (cont.)

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Elementary school and beyond

Understanding of the mind becomes more complex

Understand that people are constantly thinking – inner dialogue and “self-talk” (6-8 years old)

Mind actively interprets understanding (Flavell et al., 2002)

Developmental Context (cont.)

Methodology false belief task l.jpg

Synonymous with theory of mind

False-belief task (demonstration)

Desire psychology vs. belief-desire psychology (e.g., Wellman, 1990)

Methodology – False-belief task

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Desire psychology – toddlers (2-3 yrs.) believe that desires and wants drive behavior AND that beliefs correspond to reality (similar to Piaget’s concept of “egocentricism”)

Belief-desire psychology – around 4-5 years old, recognize that:

Behavior can be caused by beliefs or desires

People will act on beliefs even if they are wrong (i.e., contradict reality). Act based on what is believed to be true rather than what is actually true

Thus, false-belief task is used to assess whether children can recognize multiple representations (i.e., what the person believes and reality).

False-belief task (cont.)

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178 studies included meta-analysis

Purpose to resolve debates concerning:

Age of recognizing that other people have false-beliefs and whether age of recognition is influenced by type of task (i.e., difficulty of task)

How do specific task variations (e.g., puppets vs. people) influence outcome?

Self vs. other: Do children understand false-belief for the self before others, or do both occur simultaneously?

Cross-cultural: Is the developmental trajectory similar across cultures?

False-belief task - Wellman et al. (2001) – meta-analysis

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Children become more likely to pass false belief task as they develop - consistent pattern

Age of attainment is not influenced by difficulty of task. Thus, developmental level cannot account for failure of young children.

False-belief task - Wellman et al. (2001) – meta-analysis (cont.)

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Task variation (benefits every age)



Active participation

Self vs. other – no difference

Cross-cultural: Some differences yet similar developmental trajectories

False-belief task - Wellman et al. (2001) – meta-analysis (cont.)

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This methodology evaluates one aspect of theory of mind (i.e., acquisition of false-belief, representations). Theory of mind encompasses development that occurs before and after the attainment of this milestone.

Some argue that children gain the understanding before they can pass false-belief tasks.

Does not help us understand the mechanisms of how theory of mind is developed

False-belief task (cont.)

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Theory theory

Module theory

Simulation theory

Executive function

Language development

Theoretical Explanations

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Theory theory (Wellman)

Definition: Children develop a theory about why people do the things they do. As they encounter contrary evidence, they revise their theory to account for this new evidence. Thus, when desire does not explain or predict behavior sufficiently, children have to incorporate beliefs into their understanding of behavior.

Empirical support: False-belief research

Problem: Do children really have theories about the world?

Theoretical Explanations (cont.)

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Module Theory (Leslie)

Definition: Neurological maturation. Experience triggers activation of theory of mind modules. Once a module is triggered, it cannot be revised or altered. Activation of theory of mind module leads to understanding of beliefs, emotions, and desires (all of these).


Learning biases – children predisposed to process social information

Pretense – occurs early on

Autism – neurological problem – missing theory of mind module

Issue: If module activates beliefs, emotions, and desires, then why is understanding of beliefs delayed? Other two acquired earlier

Theoretical Explanations (cont.)

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Simulation Theory (Goldman, 2002)

Definition: “…children use their awareness of their own mental states to simulate, or infer, the mental states of others” (p. 214, Flavell et al., 2002). Thus, knowledge of self precedes knowledge of others.

Empirical support: Although this seems intuitive, research findings contradict, suggesting instead that knowledge of others and self occurs concurrently (e.g., Wellman et al., 2001).

Theoretical Explanations (cont.)

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Executive Function

Development occurs concurrently with theory of mind development (e.g., planning, inhibition, etc.).

Why do young children fail false-belief tasks? Inhibition is essential to success. So, some contend that young children may understand belief yet the are not able to inhibit their responses until later.

Theoretical Explanations (cont.)

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Executive Function (cont.)

HOWEVER…Inhibition occurs early

Repacholi & Gopnik (1997) – Broccoli and crackers study

Findings: 18-month-olds able to recognize that other people hold different desires and they respond appropriately (i.e., give the person what he or she wanted rather than what the child preferred).

Thus, executive functioning cannot account completely for this change.

Theoretical Explanations (cont.)

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Language Development

How can you hold representation of others’ beliefs without having language as the means of representation?

Astington’s commentary on Wellman et al. (2001). Language important:

Means for representing false-belief

Means of becoming aware of beliefs, etc.

Theoretical Explanations (cont.)

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Critiques of theoretical explanations

Theory lacks specificity

The construct is not adequately differentiated from learning processes and development

Theory does not provide rigorous criteria to meet

Theoretical Explanations (cont.)

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Individuals diagnosed with autism or an autistic spectrum disorders fail false-belief tasks

Important: If researchers can understand why there is a deficit, this could shed light on the mechanisms and developmental processes. Also serves as a way to test the predictions made by particular theories

Theory of mind and autismA test of theoretical models

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Autism – DSM-IV criteria

Impairment in social interaction

Impairment in nonverbal behaviors (e.g., eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, and body postures)

Failure to develop peer relationships at a developmentally appropriate level

Lack of social and emotional reciprocity

Lack of make-believe play or imitation of others at an appropriate developmental level

Present in infancy (Charman et. al., 1997)

Thus, unlike other children, they do not evidence learning biases directed toward social learning (e.g., lack of social referencing (Bacon et al., 1998))

Theory of mind and autism (cont.)

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Autistic children can:

Engage in reciprocal play

Recognize human from inanimate objects

Pass-false belief photo tasks (e.g., Zaitchik, 1990)

However, they consistently:

Fail deception tasks

Are not good at “mind reading”

Do not perceive when someone is lying to them

Theory of mind and autism (cont.)

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Children with MR (Baron-Cohen, 1995) and Down’s syndrome (Baron-Cohen, 1989) pass false-belief tasks at the same time as children with normal intelligence.

Thus, not the result of low IQ (low IQ is not a criteria for autistic disorders – some children have very high IQs).

Theory of mind and autism (cont.)

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So, what is unique about autism?

Leslie and Baron-Cohen both contend:

Lack theory of mind module

Contrary evidence: research on deaf children

Lack of social interaction

Overwhelmed by stimuli (e.g., contrast in eye may be too great) - aversive

Thus, avoid these interactions and miss out on this more complex aspect of social learning – present from infancy

Theory of mind and autism (cont.)

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Role of social interaction in theory of mind development

Children with one or more siblings attain false-belief understanding at an early age (Perner et al., 1994).

Thus, autism may not be caused by a lack of theory of mind. Rather failure to attain false-belief understanding and other more sophisticated aspects of theory of mind may have links to lack of social relatedness and interest, factors that emerge in early infancy.

Theory of mind and autism (cont.)

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An understanding of belief OR anunderstanding that people possess internal mental representations of the world that influence their behavior that differ from our own mental lives

What develops?

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Readily acquired by children

Consistent developmental trajectory that is similar across cultures

Acquired in a series of developmental accomplishments

Impaired in individuals with autistic disorders

Knowns and Unknowns

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Underlying mechanisms are unclear

What is the process between one developmental level and another?

How is theory of mind related to other developments (e.g., executive function, language development)?

Unclear which theory provides the most explanatory power – module theory vs. theory theory. Considerable debate persists

Knowns and Unknowns (cont.)

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Wellman, H. M.; Cross, D.; & Watson, J. (2001).Meta-analysis of theory-of-mind development: The truth about false belief. Child Development, 72(3), 655-684.

This review is followed by six commentaries


Astington, J. W. (2001). The future of theory-of-mind research: Understanding motivational states, the role of language, and real-world consequences. Child Development, 72(3), 685-687.

Baron-Cohen, S. (1995) Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Charman, T.; Swettenham, J.; Baron-Cohen, S.; Cox, A.; Baird, G.; & Drew, A. (1997). Infants with autism: An investigation of empathy, pretend play, joint attention, and imitation. Developmental Psychology, 33(5), 781-789.

Flavell, J. H.; Miller, P. H.; & Miller, S. A. (2002). Cognitive development (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Leslie, A. M. (1987). Pretense and representation: The origins of “theory of mind“. Psychological Review, 94(4), 412-426.

Repacholi , B. M., & Gopnik, A. (1997). Early reasoning about desire: Evidence from 14- and 18-month-olds. Developmental Psychology, 33(1), 12-21.

Wellman, H. M. Understanding the Psychological world: Developing a theory of mind. In U. Goswami (ed.), Blackwell handbook of childhood cognitive development. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wellman, H. M. (1992).Thechild’s theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


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