What Is Theory of Mind? Psychology And Knowledge Of Self And Others

By Margaret Wack

Updated June 28, 2019

What Is Theory Of Mind?

A common concept in the field of psychology, the theory of mind refers to the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and other people. While we have direct access to our minds through introspection, we can't ever have direct access to the minds of other people. Theory of mind allows us to ascribe thoughts, feelings, and intentions to ourselves and others, even when they may be different than our own.

Closely related to empathy, this capacity enables us to relate to others and to understand what they may be thinking or feeling. This involves a multifaceted mental process and includes the ability to understand one's thoughts and feelings, recognize differences in others, and to predict or explain other people's thoughts and actions accordingly. Theory of mind is an important component of social interaction, helping to facilitate communication and relationships with others.

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Theory of mind is referred to as a theory because its features are not directly observable in others. Instead, individuals make inferences about how other minds work, based on their own experiences. As such, the capacity for an expression of the theory of mind varies from person to person, with different people often interpreting others' actions and motivations differently. Theory of mind is a subject of ongoing research in the field of psychology.

Theory Of Mind And Human Development

Psychological research indicates that theory of mind is an innate capacity for most neurotypical people. While human beings first begin to acquire a theory of mind as infants, it takes years for this capacity to fully develop, a process that continues into adolescence as young adults grow, change, and socialize. Important precursors to the theory of mind in human development include imitation, where infants and young children imitate the behaviors of others, and an understanding of attention, where they recognize when others are paying attention to a particular task or object.

Theory of mind continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence, as children and young adults experience different social situations and make new connections and inferences about the world. Children and young adults with a high capacity for theory of mind are often very socially skilled, while those with a lesser capacity often have trouble relating to and interacting with others. Typically, the theory of mind becomes most fully developed by the end of adolescence, although this often varies from culture to culture.

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While most neurotypical people develop a theory of mind to some extent, there is a wide range of capability, with some people extremely sensitive to the thoughts, feelings, and desires of other people, and some people with little to no theory of mind. Old age, autism, mental health issues such as schizophrenia, and cultural factors can all impact the development of the theory of mind.

False Belief Test

An important milestone in gaining theory of mind is known in psychological studies as the false belief test. This test involves the capacity to attribute false beliefs to other people, and the ability to recognize that the beliefs of other people may differ from your own. In terms of the theory of mind, this test indicates the ability to reason about the internal states and motivations of other people, even when you do not have direct access to their reasoning or thoughts.

While there are many versions of the false belief test, a common variety is known as the Sally-Anne test, first implemented by psychologists Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan M. Leslie, and Uta Frith while studying the relationship between theory of mind and autism. In the Sally-Anne test, children are introduced to two dolls named Sally and Ann, each of whom has a basket and a box. Psychologists walk the study participants through a scenario involving the dolls, describing their actions at each step.

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At the beginning of the test, Sally puts a marble into her basket and leaves the room. While she is gone, Anne moves the marble into the box. When Sally returns to the room, the participants in the study are asked where Sally will look for her marble first. Children pass the false belief test when they correctly assume that Sally will look for the marble in the basket since she has a false belief that it will be where she last left it.

Most neurotypical children can pass a false belief test by around four years of age. Passing the test indicates they can recognize and understand other people's beliefs and mental states, even when they have beliefs that are different. As such, the false belief test is an important indicator of the development of the theory of mind. However, some children develop a theory of mind more slowly, and some, particularly those with autism and other neurological differences, have a limited capacity for theory of mind.

Theory Of Mind And Language

The development of language and theory of mind are strongly correlated, with some studies suggesting that they are dependent upon one another. Throughout childhood and young adulthood, the theory of mind and language are often inextricably linked.

Complex ideas involving intention, belief, and the truth-values of different statements all rely on both theories of mind and language. In some instances, psychologists argue that these abstract concepts are difficult to understand without the linguistic capacity with which to think about them. Research also suggests that being exposed to frequent communication can help young children develop a theory of mind, indicating a connection between speech, thought, and knowledge of the self and others.

In addition to these factors, the respective areas of the brain that deals with the theory of mind and language are located near one another and are closely linked, suggesting that these two capacities inform and support one another throughout human development. While studies regarding the relationship between theory of mind and language are still ongoing, research indicates that they are strongly correlated.

Theory Of Mind Deficits

While most neurotypical people develop a capacity for theory of mind to some extent, many people have a limited capacity for theory of mind. In particular, autistic people often have difficulty developing a theory of mind, and consequently often struggle to attribute thoughts, feelings, and desires that are different from their own to other people. While individuals vary widely, in general, autistic people, have a more limited capacity for theory of mind than many of their peers. Some psychologists suggest that this difference may be due in part to the difficulty of neuroatypical people to relate to and model the behavior of neurotypical people.

Individuals who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia also often have a limited capacity for theory of mind. People with this diagnosis often have trouble interpreting the intentions, beliefs, and motivations of others. They also have a diminished capacity to reflect upon themselves objectively or to consider the perspectives and opinions of third parties, with the result that they do not always realize that they are ill.

Other conditions that are correlated with the theory of mind deficits include excessive alcohol use, depression, dysphoria, and developmental language disorder. In each of these cases, a limited capacity for theory of mind often results in difficulty understanding and relating to others.

Theory Of Mind And Animals

It's largely unclear whether or not animals can develop a capacity for theory of mind similar to that of humans. In particular, while we can infer that other people's minds function similarly to our own, it's difficult to know or learn about animals' cognitive capabilities because of their innate differences from us. Non-human animals' limited capacity for language presents an additional difficulty in ascribing theory of mind to them, as language is often viewed as a necessary component of the theory of mind.

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Despite these limitations, however, research can often productively focus on aspects of human and animal behavior commonly associated with the theory of mind, such as imitation, gaze, and attention. Studies often focus on animals closely related to humans, such as primates, as well as animals that display a special aptitude for social interaction, such as birds and dogs.

While research into the relationship between theory of mind and animal cognition is still undergoing, some studies indicate that animals may also possess many of the preliminary features common to humans, indicating that non-human animals may possess some capacity for theory of mind. These animals often seem to be able to communicate with one another, comprehend the behavior and motivations of others, and even play tricks or make jokes that could indicate a complex understanding of other minds.

Philosophical Roots Of Theory Of Mind

While the concept of theory of mind in psychology developed throughout the twentieth century, the theory of mind also has much earlier roots in philosophical discussions concerning understanding, knowledge, and the other, from Cartesian dualism to the present day.

Today, philosophers involved in studying theory of mind are developing a new understanding of the way the human mind understands and relates to others. This branch of philosophy often incorporates fruitful insights from psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science to arrive at new conclusions concerning human understanding of the self and others.

Do you feel like you need help understanding yourself more, or how you interact with others better? BetterHelp's online therapy services are a powerful resource for those looking for mental health support. Get in touch to learn more about online therapy today.

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