How do we understand each other?


The term "Theory of Mind" was coined by Guy Woodruff and David Premack in a paper published in 1978 investigating a chimpanzee's ability to predict a persons behaviour by means of mental state attribution. Basically they were trying to show that their chimp, Sarah, could infer the "intentions" and "motivations" of a man and thus predict his actions.

In the many years since the paper was first published the most extensive research in this area has been seen in developmental psychology, where scientists investigate what human children know about the minds of others. They have tried to determine specifically when children gain the ability to perceive that someone else’s thoughts and ideas, what they know, are different to their own.

Tests such as the "False Belief Task", which is basically just a test to see whether a child will lie about something, that is, can they perceive that they know something that someone else doesn’t, show that it isn’t until around the 3 to 4 year age bracket that children actually develop this Theory of Mind, this ability to understand that their mind is separate from everyone else’s minds. We all take for granted now that what we know is different to what the person next to us knows, we accept it, however because of this separation we endeavour to try and understand other people. We attempt to predict other peoples motivations by utilising this Theory of Mind to try and imagine the reasons behind their actions. If we have a concept of what the mind is, then we can being to attribute different things to the mental state that mind is in. We can venture forth on the long road of trying to understand each other.

The Development of Theory of Mind:

There are several proposed answers as to why young children have problems in overcoming false belief tasks. False belief tasks are linked to the child’s theory of mind – the ability to understand that other people have beliefs, desires, and interpretations different to their own. It is thought that if a child can successfully answer a false belief question, then they have a developed theory of mind.

One theory to explain why children do not have a fully developed theory of mind is that they lack executive functions. Executive functions are the set of skills needed to plan, monitor, and execute cognitive processes. Functions include such things as inhibitory control, attentional flexibility, and working memory. It has been postulated by Jim Russell that younger children lack theory of mind due to a deficit in executive function.

A classic false belief paradigm is Wimmer and Perner’s “Maxi task” (1983). The child is presented with a doll named “Maxi” and the experimenter tells the child that Maxi places his chocolate in “the cupboard”. Maxi then goes away and the child is presented with a doll to represent Maxi’s mother. The experimenter describes how Maxi’s mother takes the chocolate and puts it somewhere else, such as a box. The experimenter then describes how Maxi returns and his mother goes away again. The child is then asked two questions. There is the “memory question”, which asks whether the child remembers where Maxi put the chocolate. Almost all children are able to answer this correctly. It does not rely on any sort of ideas of what others might be thinking. However, the false belief question does. The experimenter asks the child; “Where will Maxi look for his chocolate?” Only about 40% of 4-5 years olds answered the false belief question correctly. The rest said that Maxi would look in the chocolate’s new location. They apparently cannot understand that Maxi would not know the chocolate was not in its original location.

A deficit in executive function may well explain the effect of the Maxi task. By the ages of six and seven, children answer correctly to the false belief question about 90% of the time. Between four and seven years of age, there is an increase in cognitive ability. However, there are criticisms of the Maxi task, so does this mean that it cannot be explained by a lack of executive function?

The major criticism of the Maxi task is that the story is too long and complex for the children to fully understand. But this does not remove the possibility that a lack of executive functions is the cause of the false belief error. If anything, it would support it due to the child lacking the necessary memory and comprehensive skills to take in the story. There is also the problem of whether the false belief question is misleading. “Where will Maxi look for the chocolate?” could be interpreted as “Where will Maxi eventually look for, and find, the chocolate?” Seigal and Beattie replicated the Maxi study, but compared two different false belief questions. They found that 35% of 3-4 year olds answered correctly to “where will Maxi look?”, whereas 71% correctly answered the question, “where will Maxi look first?”. This suggests that the problem may lie in a more linguistic area than a cognitive one, but it is important to remember that even with the ambiguous question, 29% still answered incorrectly. Of course, this could suggest that these children have not developed language skills as much as the others, but an equally good case can be made for deficits in executive functioning.

The “Smarties task” (Perner et al., 1987; Gopnik & Astlington, 1988) shows another aspect of theory of mind that is lacking in children. Children are shown a Smarties box and asked what they think is inside. The children will answer that sweets are inside, but in actual fact the experimenter reveals that there is a pencil inside (much to the child’s disappointment, no doubt!). Here, the false belief question is “if Sarah saw the box, what would she think is inside?” The memory question is “when you first saw the box, what did you think was inside?” It was found that the same age range of children who performed badly at the Maxi task also performed badly in response to the false belief question here.

It seems with the Smarties task that young children cannot seem to understand, or at least do not realise, that someone else will not be lead to believe that there is a pencil in the box and mistakenly answer the same way they initially did. The children display a lack of theory of mind development in that they cannot entertain the notion that someone may not be aware of the same things they are. There is nothing about the results of this task that suggests that a deficit of executive functioning is not the solution to the question of why children lack theory of mind. It could be that children lack representational abilities – a set of functions they may not have if they lack executive functions.

Zaitchick (1990) found that children at the age of three distinctly lack general representational abilities using his “false photographs” paradigm. If young children lacked executive functions, then it is unlikely that they would be confined solely to false belief tasks and this study goes to show representational failure is indeed a general failing.

One of the experiments that most strongly supports the executive function hypothesis is the “windows task” devised by Russell et al. (1991). In this task, the child is presented with two boxes with windows in. Inside one box they can see a chocolate reward. The child is required to point at the empty box in order to receive the reward. Above the age of four, children have been found to perform this task successfully, but at the age of three, children fail time and time again, persistently pointing at the reward1. This false belief task is different to the others mentioned as the child must deceive the experimenter into selecting the incorrect box, so the experimenter does not get the reward, but the child does. Here the child is required to instigate a false belief in another person, which would require a theory of mind to realise that they could believe something to be false while the other person believes it to be true.

The executive function idea can explain this, as one of the functions the child lacks is inhibitory control. The child cannot inhibit their response to point at the reward and therefore continually fails the task. Claire Hughes (1998) has said that the ability to deceive requires the ability to inhibit a prepotent response, such as pointing at the desired reward in order to obtain it. However, this might not be attributable to executive function. An idea suggested by Bartsch is that such problems arise from the relationship of the ideas of desire and belief. She proposes that at two years old, children reason in a purely desire based way, and construe character’s actions in terms of what the actor wants – a “desire-belief” theory. However, by the ages of four and five, the child shifts this relationship around to a more adult type of reasoning. They realise that beliefs can be seen as “framing” desires and therefore determining action – a “belief-desire” theory.

This is not the only theory opposing the ideas of executive function development dictating advances in theory of mind. There is the idea of counterfactual reasoning. This explains false belief failures of children in terms of them having to imagine hypothetical situations. Children might lack the ability to perform this sort of reasoning rather than having any sort of theory of mind problems. Riggs et al. (1993) altered the Maxi paradigm slightly and changed the memory question to a “reasoning” question; “if Maxi’s mum had not made the cake, where would the chocolate be?” They found a very strong correlation between the false belief and reasoning questions – children nearly always answered both questions either correctly or incorrectly, hardly ever could they answer one but not the other.

There is another possible theory, one related to language and communication. Astington and Jenkins (1999) have found a strong relationship between the language abilities of children and their performances in theory of mind tasks. The idea that the accurate use of the linguistic terms describing mental states, such as “think”, “know” and “remember”, requires that they be understood. If a child does not understand what these words mean, then they are likely to fail false belief tasks. This is just one view within this general theory, that is, that language development drives the development of theory of mind. However, some believe that the development of theory of mind does not depend on language development, but rather language development is dependent on advancements in theory of mind.

There is some neurophysiological evidence that might support the executive function theory. Executive processes should occur in the prefrontal cortex and indeed Ozonoff et al. (1991) found that there was a relation between activity in the prefrontal cortex and false belief tasks. But Russell (1996) highlights a problem that, although there does appear to be some sort of relationship between false belief tasks and prefrontal cortex function, there is not necessarily a causal link between the two.

Underdeveloped executive functioning seems to be a plausible explanation for the development of theory of mind. Russell’s view is that grasp of false belief (and therefore development of theory of mind) is part of a general process that allows the child to construct a sense of self-awareness and self-world dualism. This reverts back to Piagetian ideas2, and the “general process” Russell mentions could be the development of executive functioning. However, as with so many theories in Psychology, the evidence is not yet conclusive, and the true mechanism of theory of mind development probably has elements of most of the theories proposed.


1 - Autistic children are also found to do this, even at any age. Autistic children appear not to develop theory of mind, at least not in a normal way.

2 - These ideas refer to the theories of child development formulated by Swiss Psychologist Jean Piaget.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.