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Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind







Theory of mind (ToM) refers to the more or less automatic tendency to impute mental states to oneself and others (Premack and Woodruff 1978). Among alternative terms such as folk psychology, naive psychology, mind reading, and mentalizing (Astington and Baird 2005), ToM has emerged as the standard terminology among psychologists, primatologists, and philosophers. To M is at the heart of human social cognition and underlies virtually every aspect of humanity.


Consider, for example, how biological and physical motions are perceived. The motion of a falling apple is governed by Newtons laws, and human infants as young as three months are sensitive to violations of such principles (Spelke 2000). In contrast, most human behaviors are interpreted in terms of desires, beliefs, and emotions. As a classic demonstration of how far we are ready to stretch our folk psychology, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel (1944) showed undergraduate students animation movies in which geometric figures moved in coordinated ways that strongly hinted intentional behaviors such as avoidance or helping. When asked to describe the scenes, participants did not hesitate to apply mentalistic attributes to circles and triangles.

Contemporary interest in ToM, however, was sparked by the mind-reading ability of Sarah, a fourteen-year-old chimpanzee who appeared to recognize intentions from behaviors. In a groundbreaking paper titled Does the Chimpanzee Have a Theory of Mind? (1978), David Premack and Guy Woodruff showed Sarah video vignettes of a trainer attempting in vain to achieve a goal (e.g., to exit a cage through a locked door) and then a pair of photographs depicting potential solutions (e.g., an intact key along with a broken one). Spontaneously, Sarah recognized the videotape as problem, understood the actors purpose, and chose alternatives compatible with that purpose (Premack and Woodruff 1978, p. 515). The authors attributed her success to the existence of a system that represents mental states, such as desire and intent, and links them to behaviors. They further maintained that a system of inferences of this kind may properly be viewed as a theory because such states are not directly observable, and the system can be used to make predictions about the behavior of others (p. 515).

Some thirty years later, the field remains divided over whether chimpanzees (or any nonhuman primates) possess a theory of mind or simply a theory of behaviors. Michael Tomasello and colleagues argue that the great apes understand others as animate, goal-directed, and intentional agents (2005, p. 675) even though they fall short in understanding beliefs and other mental states compared to humans (Call and Tomasello 1999). Others, however, caution that we have to first rule out the possibility that their responses are based on behavioral regularities (Heyes 1998; Povinelli and Vonk 2003, 2004). For example, chimpanzees spontaneously follow the gaze of others (Okamoto et al. 2002) and are attuned to what others can or cannot see (Hare et al. 2000; Povinelli and Eddy 1996). Nevertheless, it is unclear whether chimpanzees can link seeing to knowing. When competing for food, subordinate chimpanzees are reported to keep track of what dominant chimpanzees know and do not know about food locations (Hare et al. 2001). This is in stark contrast with an earlier finding that chimpanzees would beg for food indiscriminately from both trainers who could see and those who had a bucket over their head (Povinelli and Eddy 1996).

The current debate on ToM in nonhuman primates is not about whether they are capable of sophisticated social behaviorsyes, their abilities to keep track of and manipulate others sometimes rival those of humans. The issue is what can be concluded when their behaviors are compatible with both a ToM and a theory of behavioral regularities. Until a consensus is reached on this and other critical issues, the question Premack and Woodruff famously raised in their seminal work will remain unanswered.


In comparison, a consensus did emerge among developmental psychologists. It was suggested that an understanding of false beliefs is a sufficient condition for a ToM, because beliefsunlike behaviorsare private and unob-servable, and thus are beyond the scope of a theory of behaviors (Dennett 1978). And thanks to language, beliefs can be identified unequivocally in human participants.

This idea was put to a test by Heinz Wimmer and Josef Perner (1983) when the researchers told young children a story in which Maxi put his chocolate in a kitchen drawer and left. In his absence, Maxis mom moved the candy to a different drawer. Children had to predict where Maxi would look for his chocolate on his return. While most six-year-old children correctly predicted Maxis action on the basis of his false belief that the candy was still in the original drawer, most four-and five-year-old children in this study expected Maxi to look in the new location.

Young childrens difficulties are not limited to thinking in other peoples shoes. They appear to be oblivious about false beliefs they held a few moments earlier (Gopnik and Astington 1988). The development of ToM is remarkably consistent and robust, progressing almost uniformly from appreciating that people have different desires to understanding false beliefs, and later to differentiating apparent versus true emotions (Wellman and Liu 2004). A meta-analysis of more than 170 false-belief studies concluded that the transition in false-belief understanding takes place in the preschool years for most children (Wellman et al. 2001).

Although passing the false-belief task attests to a ToM, the converse is not true (Bloom and German 2000). For example, younger children may fail due to their inability to inhibit improper responses (Leslie et al. 2004; Leslie and Polizzi 1998). In addition, children show a range of competences before they pass the false-belief test. At three months of age, infants prefer biological motion to random motion (Bertenthal et al. 1984) and shift their eye gaze after an adult makes an eye movement (Hood et al. 1998). At around twelve months, human infants begin to follow others line of sight and predict actions according to gaze (Sodian and Thoermer 2004). The second year of life sees the onset of joint visual attention (Butterworth and Jarrett 1991), imitation (Meltzoff 1995), and pretend play (Lillard 2002). There is even evidence that sixteen-month-old infants have an implicit understanding of false beliefs (Onishi and Baillargeon 2005). From three to five, children produce mental words such as think or want, start to appreciate jokes (Leekam 1991), and attempt to deceive (Sodian et al. 1991). ToM continues to develop; adults still fall victim to egocentrism from time to time (Keysar et al. 2003). Nonetheless, the basic apparatus for reading and reasoning about mind is largely in place early in childhood.


What explains childrens initial failure and later success in the false-belief task? The theory theory postulates that we reason about mental events based on a system of heuristics or if-then rules (Gopnik and Wellman 1994). The child actively constructs and revises the informal ToM based on experience. For instance, a toddler may begin with a prediction that if Maxi wants something, he will act to satisfy his desire. Experiences with false beliefs of others or herself will force the child to abandon this simple heuristic and incorporate belief into an adultlike theory of mind (Bartsch and Wellman 1995).

The notion of a theory as the basis for mind reading is challenged by the simulation theory, which proposes that we compute others mental states through an automatic role-play simulation (if I were him ; Gallese and Goldman 1998; Gordon 1986). Young children find the impersonation difficult in a false-belief task because one has to withhold ones own belief and instead reason with the erroneous belief of the person to be simulated.

If a child has to discover a ToM completely on his or her own, as suggested by the theory theory, the acquisition is unlikely to be consistent and universal. Two solutions have been proposed in the literature. One is the hypothesized theory of mind mechanism (ToMM; Leslie et al. 2004; Baron-Cohen 1995), an innate neurological module that automatically maps behaviors of self-propelled agents to mental states and vice versa. The ToMM is thought to mature fairly early in life and kick off the subsequent development of folk psychology. Young childrens difficulty with the false-belief task is attributed to immature executive functioning, which works in conjunction with ToM to make behavioral predictions.

An alternative view traces the origin of ToM to language and culture. Everyday conversations expose children to the fact that speakers may have different knowledge and beliefs. Language also provides specific lexical terms for mental states (e.g., see, know, and want ) and, in some cases, different syntactic structures for different mental states (e.g.,I want to but not I want that ; however I know that but not I know to ; see de Villiers and de Villiers 2000). These linguistic structures invite children to think and talk about mental events in a way that is conventional in the language community. In this perspective, language and culture provide both the blueprint and building blocks for developing a ToM (Astington and Baird 2005).


What would the world be without a ToM? Childhood autism is a spectrum of pervasive developmental disorders characterized by deficits in social interaction, verbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Simon Baron Cohen and colleagues (1985) hypothesized that autistic children have a severe deficit in the ToMM. For example, Baron-Cohen (1995) showed children a face (Charlie) surrounded by four different kinds of candy, with Charlies eyes looking toward one of them. When asked which candy does Charlie want, most four-year-olds pointed to where Charlie was gazing. In contrast, children with autism responded randomly to what Charlie wanted, even though they had no trouble answering where Charlie was looking. The problem is a failure to map perception to mental states. Niki L, a high-functioning autistic person, wrote:

Many [autistic persons] lack some sort of intuition and have a hard time guessing hidden rules many [normal] kids somehow see. I think I eventually formed a relatively good theory of mind, but it took intentional effort. And I still have to apply it manually. It gets faster and faster as I collect many patterns in my memory, but Im afraid it wont be automatic forever. (Blackburn et al. 2000)

Brain imaging has begun to shed light on the potential neural mechanism underlying ToM. For example, Kevin Pelphrey and colleagues (2005) reported functional MRI evidence that participants with autism are insensitive to intentions conveyed by other peoples eye movements. Other imaging studies contrasted brain activities while processing mental versus physical events, for example, listening to stories involving rich mentalizing (Fletcher et al. 1995; Gallagher et al. 2000; Vogeley et al. 2001) or watching Heider/Simmel-like cartoon animations (Castelli et al. 2000). Consistently, stronger activations are found in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), temporal poles, and the posterior superior temporal sulcus (STS) during mentalizing. For further information, see Frith and Frith (2003) and Baron-Cohen et al. (2000).


The prepositional phrase theory of mind is a linguistic oddity. Contrary to the expectation of a native English speaker, for example, the theory of mind mechanism is not a theory about mind mechanism but a mechanism for theory of mind. The strong internal cohesiveness reflects a commitment to two of its core assumptions that behaviors are understood in mental terms and that this understanding constitutes a theory.

Although both points are under vigorous debate, ToM as a field of scholarship has thrived, and continues to thrive, beyond the imagination of Premack and Woodruff (1978). Recent reports of self-recognizing elephants and dolphins (Plotnik et al. 2006; Reiss and Marino 2001) and deception in scrub jays (Dally et al. 2005), among others, question the view that ToM is unique to a handful of primate speciesif not for humans onlyand instead suggest similar competences have evolved independently as an adaptation to complex social lives. Meanwhile, computer scientists find To M essential in developing autonomous, cooperative robotic agents (Scassellati 2002), and economists are tying many aspects of social exchange and decision making to ToM (Singer and Fehr 2005). This brief survey of ToM cannot do justice to a vast and vibrant field of study. But fortunately, motivated readers should not have difficulty finding in-depth and up-to-date readings that connect To M with their specialtyafter all, where there is social interaction, there is theory of mind. At least potentially.

SEE ALSO Child Development; Developmental Psychology; Lay Theories; Needs; Neuroscience; Primates; Psychology; Stages of Development; Wants


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Frith, Uta, and Christopher D. Frith. 2003. Development and Neurophysiology of Mentalizing. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 358 (1431): 459473.

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Okamoto, Sanae, Masaki Tomonaga, Kiyoshi Ishii, et al. 2002. An Infant Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) Follows Human Gaze. Animal Cognition 5 (2): 107114.

Onishi, Kristine, and Renée Baillargeon. 2005. Do 15-Month-Old Infants Understand False Beliefs? Science 308 (5719): 255258.

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Gary Feng

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"Theory of Mind." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 25 Apr. 2017 <>.

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theory of mind

theory of mind ‘Theory of mind’ is a catch-phrase in contemporary psychology, referring to a universal human tendency to attribute mental states (feelings, beliefs, intentions, attitudes) to oneself and to others. ‘Mentalizing’ has much the same meaning. Mental states are used to explain and predict other people's behaviour intuitively — as if guided by a theory about the nature of mind.

Imagine you are watching a movie. ‘Why did the detective duck into the doorway? Because he thought he was being followed.’ This explanation holds even if the detective was not actually followed by anybody. What counts is that he believed he was being followed, and this determined his behaviour. Belief is more significant than reality. It is vitally important not to confuse mental states and physical states. To achieve this, the human brain is equipped with a mechanism that represents mental states in a special way. The underlying mechanism is likely to have an innate basis, which explains why social learning early in life is both rapid and universal. One early function of the mechanism may be to direct infants' attention to other human agents, who are likely to affect their lives.

There is increasing interest in the biological basis of mentalizing among neuroscientists and primatologists. It is uncertain whether any non-human primates possess the mechanism, but if so, it is probably limited to apes (gorillas and chimpanzees). Monkeys are thought not to possess it at all. Clues to the physiological basis of mentalizing come from autism, a developmental disorder, which is characterized by severe impairments of social communication. These impairments can be explained by a deficit in the ability to attribute mental states to self and others, suggesting a failure of the mentalizing mechanism. In contrast to children with autism, normally-developing children show evidence of mentalizing during the first year of life. For example, from about 8–12 months of age they spontaneously establish ‘joint attention’ with adults. They follow with their gaze to where an adult looks or points and begin themselves to point at things to show objects of interest to others. This is not so as to obtain things there and then, but to share mental states and to build communicative relationships to other people in the long term. Some time in the second year, children begin to understand pretend play, which relies on the ability to represent mental states and not to confuse them with reality. From the age of 4 or 5, children in all cultures show a reliable and explicit appreciation that mental states may differ from reality, and that one person may think something different from another, and different from what they know to be the truth.

A standard test to demonstrate mentalizing ability requires the child to track a character's false belief. This test can be done using stories, cartoons, people, or, as illustrated in the figure, a puppet play, which the child watches. In this play, one puppet, called, Sally, leaves her ball in her basket, then goes out to play. While she is out, naughty Anne moves the ball to her own box. Sally returns and wants to play with her ball. The child watching the puppet play is asked where Sally will look for her ball (where does Sally think it is?). Young children aged around 4 and above recognize that Sally will look in the basket, where she (wrongly) thinks the ball is.

Mentalizing is pervasive in everyday life, in communication and co-operation, in pedagogy, in play-acting, but also in deceiving, cheating, and outwitting.

Autism — a specific disorder of mentalizing

Autism is a life-long developmental disorder that affects 0.1–0.5% of the population. It is characterized by qualitative impairments in social interaction and communication and the presence of restricted and repetitive interests and activities. Autism is associated with epilepsy (one in three cases) and mental retardation (three in four), and affects at least three times as many males as females. Studies of families and of identical twins suggest a major genetic contribution to autism. Various types of brain abnormality have been found, although the specific and defining features of autistic brains have not yet been identified. This is in part because of the heterogeneity of the condition, which makes it problematic to correlate behavioural observations and physiological data. Autism is now conceptualized as a spectrum of clinical signs — a range of manifestations varying with age and ability, but showing core impairments in social, communicative, and imaginative abilities. One extreme of the spectrum is the severely impaired child of low IQ, who may be silent, aloof, and locked into repetitive motor behaviour (stereotypy). But at the other extreme is the high-functioning individual, who may be pedantic and verbose, active but odd in social approach, with an obsessive pursuit of narrow interests (e.g. collecting registration numbers on lamp posts). This latter picture conforms to the new diagnostic category of Asperger syndrome.

Among the first reliable signs of autism in the young child is an absence of joint attention activities, e.g. a lack of spontaneous pointing or pretend play. These early difficulties signal a failure to attend to other minds, which is later manifest in failure on simple false-belief tests, such as the Sally–Anne task (see figure). Children with autism, even high-functioning ones, seem to be unable to pass this test at the appropriate mental and chronological age. This is in contrast to other children with learning disabilities, such as those with Down syndrome or Williams syndrome. Furthermore, this result holds when alternative reasons for task failure, such as problems of motivation, language, or memory, have been ruled out through the use of closely matched control tests.

A deficit in mentalizing explains the particular social communication difficulties that are typical of children and adults with autism, who nevertheless display a range of other apparently normal social and emotional behaviours. For instance, children with autism are able to use ‘instrumental’ gestures (to affect behaviour directly) much better than expressive gestures (to affect inner states). They are able to understand and engage in sabotage (affecting behaviour directly) better than in deception (to alter somene's belief). They are able to remember messages verbatim, to give factual and honest answers to questions, and to deliver speeches. But they are curiously unable to respond to hints, to engage in gossip, to keep secrets, and to make confidences.

In individuals with Asperger syndrome, verbal ability and social adaptation tend to be higher than in autism. Thus, compensatory learning of social communication skills can occur even in the absence of a start-up mechanism early in life. A proportion of sufferers do gradually acquire mentalizing abilities with practice, and through the application of logical inference. And in some, mentalizing may be merely delayed. However, late-acquired mentalizing appears to lack an intuitive basis, and tends to be fragile and effortful.

What is the neural substrate of ‘theory of mind’? To date there are only a handful of relevant studies, but the new imaging techniques, which allow activity to be detected in the living human brain, are producing interesting results. In such experiments, the brains of volunteers are scanned while they perform tasks in which they must make inferences about mental states in contrast to physical states. During mentalizing, a number of brain areas become active, most notably a region called the anterior cingulate cortex (lying on the medial surface of the frontal lobe, hidden from view in the split between the two hemispheres), a region at the junction of the temporal and parietal lobes, and part of the limbic system called the amygdala. Each of these areas of the cerebral cortex appear to have analogous regions in the brains of non-human primates, and even non-primate mammals. For example, some nerve cells in the equivalent of temporo-parietal region in monkeys become active when the monkey watches humans or other monkeys walking. In the same general area are found nerve cells that are similar to the ‘mirror neurons’ described sby the Italian neurophysiologist, Giacomo Rizzolatti, in a part of the monkey's frontal lobe. These cells respond when the monkey looks at particular actions (e.g. grasping) being carried out either with his own hands or by the hands of another monkey. The other main component of the mentalizing system, the anterior cingulate cortex, is involved in the ‘monitoring’ of action. In humans it is particularly active when we monitor our own thoughts and feelings.

To speculate, the brain's mentalizing system might have evolved from a system concerned with analysing the movements of other creatures and from a system that processes information about our own inner states.

Uta Frith


Baron-Cohen, S., Tager-Flusberg, H., and Cohen, D. (ed.) (2000). Understanding other minds: perspectives from developmental neuroscience, (2nd edn). Oxford University Press.
Happé, F. and and Frith, U. (1996). The neuropsychology of autism. Brain, 119, 1377–400.

See also learning disabilities.

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