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
Lisa A. Burckell
December 17, 2004
Methodology - False-belief task
Theory of mind and autism
Knowns and unknowns
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?
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
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
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).
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
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.
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
Understanding of emotion and desire (2 yrs.)
Pretense – engage in make-believe and pretend play (relation to false-belief task) (2 yrs.)
Use of words such as “think,” “believe,” etc. (3 yrs. & older)
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)
Synonymous with theory of mind
False-belief task (demonstration)
Desire psychology vs. belief-desire psychology (e.g., Wellman, 1990)
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).
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?
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.
Task variation (benefits every age)
Self vs. other – no difference
Cross-cultural: Some differences yet similar developmental trajectories
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
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?
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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))
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
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).
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
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.
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
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
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
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.