Theory of Mind

The basic principles involved in mind theory are beliefs, desires, and intentions that are used to comprehend why somebody is acting in some way or to predict how somebody is acting. In general, Mind Theory requires identifying the knowledge, beliefs, emotions and intentions of another person and using that understanding to navigate social situations. A commonly used task of measuring theory of mind is a task of false-belief, like this:

10 Picture Books for Practicing Theory of Mind Skills

Demonstrate the child a Band-Aid box and ask the child what’s inside the box he / she thinks. He or she will probably answer, “Band-Aids.” Open the box and display him / her that within is a toy pig, while saying that there’s really a pig inside and close the box after this.

Now, as you’re bringing into view a toy figurine boy who’s been hidden up to now, the adults say “Scott’s never seen anything inside this Band-Aid box. Now Scott comes here. So, what does Scott think the box contains? Band-Aids or a pig? Children who have established Mind Theory will understand that because he did not see in the box, Scott holds a different understanding than they.

Children who have formed Mind Theory will understand that because he did not see in the box, Scott continues to hold a different understanding than them.

They’ll respond that Scott thinks Band-Aids is in the box. Those who have yet to develop Mind Theory may respond that Scott thinks pigs are in the box, mistakenly thinking that Scott holds the same belief as they do.

Kids are improving on Mind Theory tasks around the age of 4 and are able to fully understand that somebody can act on the basis of a false belief about an object or event. In my own work with pre-schoolers, anecdotally, 3-year-olds tend to understand that Scott didn’t see inside the box, but still react that Scott thinks a pig is in the box.

For children with developmental disabilities, such as those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), it may take cognitive ability a little longer to develop, and some higher skills may not be attained at all. Youth (ages 5 to 13) with autism received lower scores on measures to understand the beliefs and emotions of others than those typically developed by young people, but there were no differences in understanding others’ intentions possibly since knowing intentions is a less nuanced ability that evolves faster than knowing feelings and beliefs. Mind Theory also predicted ASD diagnosis, so that those with the lowest level of these abilities had more serious diagnoses (i.e. autism with intellectual disability) than those with more advanced Mind Theory (Asperger’s syndrome) diagnoses. Mind theory evidently plays a role in the emergence of delays in development, with discrepancies between those with delays and normally developing adolescents persisting in middle and even adolescence.

By comprehending Mind Theory, we may not only be able to better diagnose those with complications, but also create more effective interventions to encourage and support cognitive development. It is believed that executive function is related to social social skills, so that those with higher levels of cognitive abilities also have greater social skills, with that relationship being partly related. The connection between perceived competence and executive function may be more nuanced and bidrectional, as indicated in some of the literature, but I think it is most important to establish how EF skills contribute to mental theory and social competence in this way. Understanding how the underlying EF(Executive Functioning) process affects one’s social development will help us build new approaches for children. These initiatives could focus on cognitive and EF components which could help develop social skills, making the intervention less anxious and more accessible.