The concept of theory of mind has been, and continues tobe, extensively researched within psychology. To have a theory of mind means tobe able to attribute mental states – such as beliefs, desires, emotions,knowledge; to oneself and to other people, as well as being able to understand theconcept that other people have beliefs, desires, emotions and knowledge thatare different to our own (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). In order to possess theoryof mind, one must be able to make inferences about the representational statesof others and accordingly predict their behaviour as a result (Lewis andMitchell, 1994). The term ‘theory of mind’ was first introduced in 1978 byPremack and Woodruff as they investigated whether chimpanzees possessed theoryof mind by presenting them with videotapes of problematic situations – such asa banana being out of reach – and then with photographs; one of whichrepresented a solution to the problem.
Their findings were that, because thechimpanzees consistently chose the correct photographic solution, the animalsunderstood the problem from the perspective of the person in the videotape. Thisis an example of what it means to possess a theory of mind. Wellman (2014) explains that everydaymentalistic understanding is based around three ‘categories’ of the mind;beliefs, desires and actions. This means that in their daily lives, peopleengage in acts they believe will get them what they desire. However, theory ofmind goes beyond these ‘categories’, as a methodical system of interconnected constructs that include emotions, perception,ignorance and more, all of which ‘overlap’ withbeliefs, desires and emotions. In recent decades, ‘belief’ hasbeen assessed through the use of false-belief tasks, which can shed light onwhat children think or believe about what others think or believe. A typical taskcontains a simple storyline.
Cohen (2002) provides an example; the children arepresented with dolls named John and Sally. John places an object behind thesofa and Sally sees this. Sally then leaves the room and John moved the objectfrom behind the sofa to another location, for example into a box. When Sallyreturns, she believes the object to still be behind the sofa. Before the age of3, if a child is asked where Sally will look for the object they will typicallyanswer that she will look in the box.
However, between the ages of 3 and 4something changes and children will then answer that Sally will look behind thesofa. This demonstrates that as children approach the age of 4 they gain theability to understand that Sally will have a false belief about the object’slocation as she was out of the room when it was moved, thus they are able tosee the situation from Sally’s point of view. Our minds are inhabited by thoughts,beliefs, desires, intentions, emotions, perceptions and other mental states,all of which allow us to understand things from another person’s point of view(Flavell, 2004). However, it is the pointat which a child develops these abilities and is able to understand situationsfrom a perspective that is not their own; i.e. the point at which they developtheory of mind, that has been heavily debated. The traditional assumptionwithin psychology is that children gain theory of mind aged approximately 4years, and this essay aims to investigate the previous research on this topicand, due to the large amount of supporting research, argue the standpoint thatchildren do not fully develop a theory of mind until the age of 4 years. Throughout research into therubric of children’s theory of mind there have been many proposed theories thatcontest when the development of theory of mind in children actually takes place.
One of the most notable of these theories is the ‘modular theory of theory ofmind’ or ‘theory of mind module account’. Fodor, (1983) originally describedthis theory by explaining that theory of mind has a ‘specific, innate basis’ meaningthat the processes by which the essential ‘character’ of a theory of mind is determineddo not apply to other cognitive domains; therefore inferring that thedevelopment of theory of mind differs to that of other cognitive domains, suchas the development of mental skills or general knowledge acquisition. Theoristssupporting the module account propose a distinct theory of mind ‘module’ withinthe brain that produces representations of human activity; meaning that thismodule allows a child to gain understanding of the thoughts, beliefs, desires andemotions of another person. These theorist dismiss all claims of earlier developmentand preach that this significant conceptual change takes place within the child’smind at approximately 4 years of age, therefore providing support for the lineof argument in this essay. Further support for this claimcan be taken from various studies using the false-belief task. A classicexample of a false-belief task is that of Wimmer and Perner (1983).
In theirstudies, they presented children of different ages with a scenario; a boyplaces his chocolate in a cupboard and leaves the room, then his mother movesthe chocolate to a drawer in his absence. The children are asked where the boywill look for his chocolate when he returns to the room. In their study, noneof the 3-4 year old, 57% of the 4-6 year old and 86% of the 6-9 year oldchildren indicated correctly that the boy would look in the original location;the cupboard.
This provides evidence that the children who answer correctlyunderstand that the boy’s actions are dependent on his beliefs, rather than thereal situation, thus demonstrating how children are able to understandsituations from another person’s point of view; yet again providing findingsthat children gain theory of mind at approximately 4 years of age. Yet another example of the useof the false belief to exhibit how children at age 4 years are much moresolidified in their abilities to understand situations and emotions from thepoints of views of others comes from Perner (1999). In this study, childrenaged 3, 4 and 5 years were shown a distinctively marked candy box which, inactuality, contained pencils. When asked what a person who had not seen thecontents of the box would think it contained, 4 and 5 year olds were generallyconfident in attributing different beliefs to other children (i.e. that theywould believe it contained candy) whereas 3 year olds were wholly lessconfident. Some researchers even reported that younger participants becamedistressed, confused or ‘clammed-up’ when asked this question (as cited byCohen, 2002).
Despite the large amount ofresearch suggesting that it is at age 4 years that children develop theory ofmind, there has been an abundance of research conducted in order to investigateyounger children’s abilities in terms of their understanding of others’thoughts, beliefs, emotions and desires.In order to succeed infalse-belief tasks, one must be able to understand how another person perceivesa situation. Astington & Gopnik (1991) cite Lempers, Flavell & Flavell(1977), regarding their discoveries that 2 year olds are able to, to a degree,understand perception. They can produce perceptions in others by showing themthings that they themselves are perceiving, even some novel tasks such asshowing someone a picture that is at the bottom of a small box.
Astington (1991) also cite Yaniv & Shatz (1988) whose findings show that bythe age of 3, children are also able to understand that they can ‘deprive’ othersof perception by hiding things. Thirdly, 2 year olds are also able to makeaccurate judgements of another person’s emotion if they also know that person’sgoals and the outcome of their actions (Wellman & Wooley, 1990).Research such as these studiesdemonstrate how certain aspects of cognition that are required in order topossess theory of mind, such as understanding perception within oneself andothers, can be acquired before the age of 4 years; even as young as age 2years. Children aged 3 and 4 years are more central to the topic of research oftheory of mind as they tend to show a more explicit understanding of the mind.
3-year-oldchildren are unable to distinguish between the apparent and real identity of ‘deceptiveobjects’ – for example, a sponge made to look like a rock. They are, however,able to distinguish between real and mental entities, for example when beingtold that one boy has a cookie and one boy is thinking about a cookie they areable to tell you which of the cookies can be eaten (Wellman & Estes, 1986).This just goes to show how the 3 year olds have developed enough in order tocomprehend the difference between reality and imagination as well as being ableto view a situation from another person’s point of view. Perhaps children developa theory of mind before the age of 4 years. Over the past 3 decades ofresearch into children’s theory of mind, the false-belief task is the mostcommon method used when investigating the topic, and to have proven very usefulin measuring a child’s understanding of mental states such as beliefs, desiresand emotions.
However, there are some issues with the actual method used in false-belieftasks. There could perhaps be some confounding variables; for example, 3 yearolds may fail the false belief tasks as often as they do due to a lack of understandingof language, or other cognitive aspects required to fully comprehend the task.Lewis and Osborne (1990) found that when the test question was clarified, more 3year olds succeeded in acknowledging another person’s false belief, compared tothose that were asked using vaguer words in Perner, Leeker & Wimmer’s 1987original study.
Southgate, Senju & Csibra (2007)conducted a slightly different type of false-belief task in which theypresented 2-year-old children with a non-verbal task which used an eye trackerto measure anticipatory looking. During the task, an actor witnesses the hidingof a toy in a primary location which is later removed when the actor is awayfrom the scene. This method was used in an attempt to combat some of thedisadvantages of the original false-belief task, such as the requirements tounderstand mental states, like language, for example. In addition to the issues of thevalidity of the false-belief tasks, some other issues have been raised withinthe field of research of children’s theory of mind. Firstly, a huge amount ofrecorded research is made up of studies conducted in the Western world; thus itmay not be accurate to globally generalisefindings across different cultures. McCormick, Penelope, Olson & David (1991)conducted a study on Quechua, preliterate, peasant children using threedifferent tasks to test theory of mind in 4 – 8 year olds and they made severalnotable observations. Firstly, although they were able to answer series’ ofquestions, all of the children across the age range struggled to follow detailsof stories used in the tasks, even when they are acted out.
Secondly, all ofthe children had difficulty when presented with questions that examined theirunderstanding of both their own and others’ thoughts; as they performed significantlylower on the ‘think’ questions. This contrasts their ability to perform fairlywell in the appearance/reality tasks, as a significant number of all ages wereable to make a distinction between the two. In fact, the elder age group (6-8years) was reported to have ‘reached a ceiling in their performance’.
However, thedata suggest that Quechua children do not develop theory of mind in their earlychildhood, which obviously contradicts the assumptions drawn from the findingsof studies conducted on Western children. This suggests the development oftheory of mind may not be universal.Furthermore, assumptions aboutthe development of theory of mind only take into account certain individuals. Mostchildren with autism fail tasks related to theory of mind. Happé (1995) observed data from 70 autistic, 34 mentallyhandicapped and 70 normal children previously tested in other studies.
Heranalysis found that normally developing children had a 50% chance of passing two tasks at the verbalmental age of 4 years, autistic children took more than twice as long to reachthis probability of success. These findings suggest that autistic childrenrequire much higher mental verbal age in order to pass false-belief tasks. Inconclusion, despite the array of findings from a vast amount of studies conductedregarding the age of acquisition of children’s theory of mind, pinpointing theexact moment when children gain theory of mind is near impossible; for a numberof reasons. Primarily, and perhaps most crucially, individual differences playa huge part in acquisition of theory of mind, i.e. some children will have ahigher level of cognitive functioning at a certain age than others will, whichresults in a sooner acquisition of theory of mind for those particularchildren. Additionally, children with developmental disorders such as autismcannot fall under the assumptions made by the findings of research that doesnot include them, as it has been found that they take many years longer to gaina certain understanding of theory of mind, if they ever do.
Secondly, it is notcompletely clear if the process by which children develop theory of mind is amomentary occurrence. Evidence from studies on younger children, such as thatof Lempers, Flavell & Flavell (1977) and Wellman & Estes (1986)may suggest that it is in fact a lengthier process that takes places over time.Overall, this essay can concludethat, along with a sufficient amount of evidence for specific ages ofacquisition of theory of mind, whether it be age 4 years or younger, perchance thereis no specific age at which theory of mind becomes solidified in a child’sbrain.