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

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated August 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Hundreds of theories have been proposed in psychology throughout the years, discussing topics from attachment to how the mind works. One such theory is the theory of mind, which explores how people relate their own inner experiences to those of others. Understanding this theory may help you understand how humans relate and how to connect with the people in your life.

Understanding Others Can Start With Understanding Yourself

What Is The Theory Of Mind? 

A common concept in psychology, the theory of mind, refers to the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others. While introspection psychology allows individuals direct access to their own minds, understanding what goes on in the minds of others is less straightforward. Theory of mind allows people to ascribe thoughts, feelings, and intentions to themselves and others, even when they may differ from their own. 

Closely related to empathy, this capacity enables people to relate to others and understand their thoughts or feelings. This process involves multifaceted steps and includes understanding one's thoughts and feelings, recognizing differences in others, and predicting or explaining other people's thoughts and actions accordingly. Theory of mind is essential to social interaction, facilitating communication and relationships with others.

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's minds work based on their own experiences. The capacity for expressing the theory of mind varies from person to person, with different people interpreting others' actions and motivations differently. Theory of mind is a subject of ongoing research in psychology.

Theory Of Mind And Human Development

While humans first begin to acquire the theory of mind as infants, it may take years for this capacity to fully develop, a process that continues into adolescence as young adults grow, change, and socialize. Essential 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 task or object.

Theory of mind continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence as children and young adults experience new social situations and make new connections and inferences about the world. Cognitive psychology finds that children and young adults with a high capacity for theory of mind are often socially skilled. In contrast, those with a lesser ability often have difficulty relating to and interacting with others. The theory of mind becomes most fully developed by the end of adolescence, although this can vary from culture to culture.

While neurotypical people may develop a theory of mind to some extent, there is a wide range of capabilities. Some people are susceptible to other people's thoughts, feelings, and desires, and others have little to no theory of mind. Old age, neurodivergence, mental health conditions, and cultural factors can all impact the development of the theory of mind.

False Belief Test

A significant milestone in gaining a 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 other people's beliefs may differ from yours. Regarding the theory of mind, this test indicates the ability to reason about other people's internal states and motivations, 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 Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan M. Leslie, and Uta Frith while studying the relationship between the theory of mind and autism. In the Sally-Anne test, children are introduced to Sally and Ann's two dolls, each with a basket and a box. Psychologists walk the study participants through a scenario involving the dolls, describing their actions at each step.

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.

Many 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 different beliefs. The false belief test is an essential indicator of the development of the theory of mind. However, some children develop a theory of mind more slowly, and some, particularly neurodivergent children, have a limited capacity for theory of mind. 

Passing the test could also indicate that such an individual possesses stronger active-term memory capacity. Generally, the results from the Sally-Anne test help psychologists achieve ecological validity on the universality of the 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 depend on one another. The theory of mind and language are often inextricably linked throughout childhood and young adulthood.

Complex ideas involving intention, belief, and the truth values of different statements rely on mind and language theories. Psychologists sometimes argue that these abstract concepts can only be understood with the linguistic capacity to think about them. Research also suggests that exposure 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 involve the theory of mind and language are near one another. They are closely linked, suggesting that these two capacities inform and support one another throughout human development. While studies regarding the relationship between the theory of mind and language are still ongoing, research indicates they are strongly correlated.

Retroactive interference also plays an active role in the relationship between the theory of mind and language. The concept considers instances where new experiences, languages, or learning conflict with existing patterns. Such situations may alter human memory, especially short-term memory, limiting the capacity to process information and theory of mind. While there is no ecological validity for this phenomenon, cognitive psychology recognizes the possibility of this change in humans.

Theory Of Mind Deficits

While neurotypical people may develop a capacity for theory of mind to some extent, some people have a limited capacity. In particular, autistic individuals often have difficulty developing a theory of mind and may struggle to attribute thoughts, feelings, and desires different from their own to others. While individuals vary widely, autistic people have a more limited capacity for theory of mind than many peers. Some psychologists suggest that this difference is partly due to these people's difficulty relating to and modeling neurotypical behavior.

Individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia may also have a limited capacity for theory of mind. People with this diagnosis often have difficulty interpreting the intentions, beliefs, and motivations of others. They may also have a diminished ability to reflect upon themselves objectively or consider third parties' perspectives and opinions. 

Other conditions correlated with the theory of mind deficits include excessive alcohol use, depression, dysphoria, and developmental language disorder. In each case, a limited capacity for theory of mind often results in difficulty understanding and relating to others. Individuals with sharper long-term memory tend to display less capacity for theory of mind than people with more active short-term memory.

The Philosophical Roots Of Theory Of Mind

While the theory of mind in psychology developed throughout the 20th century, it also has much earlier roots in philosophical discussions concerning understanding, knowledge, and the other, from Cartesian dualism to the present day.

Today, philosophers studying the theory of mind develop a new understanding of how 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.

Understanding Others Can Start With Understanding Yourself

Examine Your Theory Of Mind

Theory of mind can help individuals understand how they relate to others. If you find understanding the thoughts and motivations of others challenging, talking to a professional may be beneficial.  

Some people face barriers to reaching out for in-person therapeutic services. In these cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp can be a convenient option, as it allows you to meet with your therapist from the comfort of your home or anywhere you have an internet connection. When you sign up, you can get matched with a therapist, often within 48 hours. 

Research shows that online therapy is effective for treating various mental health conditions. One review found that online treatment led to a 50% reduction in symptoms of "panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and compulsive gambling disorder." In addition, it significantly decreased the impact of stress and chronic fatigue. 


Theory of mind showcases how people use empathy and similar techniques or abilities to understand how another person might react or what they might think based on context clues. If you struggle with this theory, you're not alone. Consider reaching out to a licensed therapist for guidance and support.

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