We’ve done it! Click here to order your copy of Psychology Sorted Book 2. And just to thank you all for your patience, I am writing this blog on one of the most frequently-asked questions: ‘What is Theory of Mind?’ Of course, I am including studies from the new book, so you can see how helpful our text will be when teaching Psychology.
THEORY OF MIND is investigated when studying development. It is a developmental process linked to empathy, and exam questions on the topic will take the form of ‘Discuss the development of empathy and/or theory of mind.’ The slight difference between empathy and theory of mind is that empathy seems to be emotionally driven, and theory of mind is cognitive. Theory of mind is understanding what others think, and thus being able to predict their behaviour, while empathy is identifying others’ emotions and being able to identify with these. It develops in parallel with theory of mind, and the two seem to depend on each other. Links can be seen here with Piaget, who believed that taking the position of others takes place in the pre-operational stage (before 7 years old), and Hughes, who argued that with the correct task design, this could be shown much earlier.
By 4 years old a child knows that what they see and believe may not be the same as what others see and believe. Three useful studies that test for the presence of Theory of Mind, which can all be found in the book, are:
Baron-Cohen et al._1985– who used a false-belief test (the Sally-Anne task) to investigate whether or not children with autistic spectrum disorder have theory of mind. While there have been criticisms of the study, not least because it has since been shown that many of these children do indeed possess theory of mind, it is a classic in design.
Repacholi and Gopnik_1997 – studied children between 14 mths and 18 mths old, to see when they could identify that others’ wishes were different from their own. The younger children would offer a researcher crackers instead of broccoli, because crackers were what the they liked, even though the researcher had already shown disgust at the crackers. However, the slightly older children, once they saw that the researcher liked the broccoli, would offer that, even though they themselves didn’t like it.
Alison Gopnik was also part of a study investigating a possible gender difference in development of empathy. See the hilarious film clip below.
Finally, a more recent study by Cowell et al._(2015) found that pre-school children with theory of mind were less willing to share their resources than children of the same age without theory of mind. So, it seems that understanding how another is feeling is not enough to make you feel empathy with them.