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

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Have you ever met a person who has a keen ability to accurately “read” others? Or perhaps you have developed an intuitive understanding of the people in your life, and can often predict their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors before they even express them. If so, you have likely thought about what it means to have a strong theory of mind. Theory of mind, describes a specific type of interpersonal skill: the ability to understand another person’s mental state. With a strong theory of mind, you can better understand and predict peoples’ behavior, motivations, and perspectives, leading to more effective communication and stronger relationships.

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Understanding others can start with understanding yourself

What is theory of mind? 

A common concept in psychology, the theory of mind, refers to the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others. Allowing people to ascribe thoughts, feelings, and intentions to others.

Closely related to empathy, this process involves recognizing the innate differences between people and attempting to see the world from their point-of-view. A person with a strong theory of mind understands other people’s beliefs, desires, thoughts, and feelings, allowing them to predict or explain their actions and motivations. Theory of mind is essential to social interaction, facilitating communication and relationships with others.

The word theory in “theory of mind“ refers to the process of theorizing about the cognitive and emotional processes of others. Of course, it is not possible to fully understand the nuances of another person’s subjective experience; instead, we create a mental model of their experience and perspective. A strong theory of mind often depends on having more information on a person’s beliefs, background, cultural values, or personalities, which is why it may be easier to understand those with whom you are close or who share your values. Theory of mind is a subject of ongoing research in both social psychology and developmental psychology.

Theory of mind and human development

While humans first begin to develop theory of mind as infants, it may take years for this skill to fully develop. This kind of social learning continues into adolescence as individuals gain experience making inferences about the world. 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.

Current research in cognitive psychology has found that children and young adults with a high capacity for theory of mind are often socially skilled, while those with a lesser ability often have difficulty relating to and interacting with others. Even among neurotypical people, theory of mind and other skills related to social cognition can vary drastically. Some people develop a strong intuition about the inner lives of others, while other people find perspective-taking more difficult. Old age, neurodivergence, mental health conditions, and cultural factors can all impact the development of the theory of mind.

Assessing theory of mind in children: False belief task

Significant social-cognitive development takes place in early childhood, when children begin to develop the ability for abstract thought. Development of theory of mind, can be tested using a false belief test, a type of psychological test designed to assess young children’s ability to reason about other people's internal states and motivations. Specifically, they test whether a child is able to understand that someone can hold a belief that is incorrect or does not align with reality.

While there are many versions of the false belief test, a common task is known as the Sally-Anne test, developed while researchers were studying the relationship between the theory of mind and autism. In the Sally-Anne test, children are introduced to Sally and Anne'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 participant is 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.

Typically developing children can often 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 wrong beliefs, or beliefs that differ from their own. 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 autistic 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.

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Theory of mind and language

Language development and theory of mind are strongly correlated, with some studies suggesting that they depend on one another. Language not only allows us to communicate, it may also be critical for understanding complex or abstract ideas, such as those involving intention, belief, and truth values. Some psychologists hypothesize that these abstract concepts can only be understood if an individual has the linguistic capacity to think about them.

For example, “love” might be challenging to fully grasp if it were not made easily accessible through common language constructs. As such, theory of mind development often occurs right alongside language acquisition. 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.

Unsurprisingly, the respective brain regions associated with theory of mind and language seem to work in tandem, further lending credence to the idea that these 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, individuals with autism spectrum disorders often have difficulty developing a theory of mind and may struggle to detect mental states in other people. While individuals vary widely, people with autism 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 psychological concept of theory of mind in psychology developed throughout the 20th century, it also has much earlier roots in philosophy, including debates from the time of Rene Descartes. Today, philosophers continue to study and expand upon ideas related to theory of mind. One philosophical idea related to theory of mind is called theory-theory. The theory-theory proposes that young children naturally create theories to help them understand the behavior of others, in turn developing a basic understanding of psychology—a “folk psychology”. As they encounter new social situations, they revise and update these theories.

By contrast, simulation theory posits that individuals understand others' minds not by theorizing about them, but rather by simulating or internally replicating their mental states. For example, if you witness someone struggling to open a jar, simulation theory argues that you understand their frustration and effort not just by observing them, but by internally simulating the action and emotions involved.

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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. 

Takeaway

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 theory of mind, you're not alone. Consider reaching out to a licensed therapist for guidance and support.
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