To what extent is an acquisition of a ‘theory of mind’ essential for the ‘typical’ development of the child? To answer this question, this essay will firstly discuss what is meant by Theory of Mind (ToM). It will then go on to look at evidence to support ToM while discussing the extent to which ToM is essential for the ‘typical’ development of the child. ToM resides under social cognition, where people think about people (Remmel, et al. , 2001). Through the course of early childhood development, children distinguish that people, including themselves, have thoughts, intentions, wants, and feelings.
ToM describes a child’s understanding that people’s behaviours can be predicted or explained by mental states. ToM enables us to recognize there may be multiple viewpoints held by individuals for particular situations, and we can take on those perspectives even when they vary from our own (Gray and Hosie, 1996; Gray, et al. , 2001; Marschark, et al. , 2000; Siegal and Varley, 2002). This understanding of mental states and their impact on others’ behaviour notably affects our interpersonal relationships.
Siegal and Varley (2002) further described ToM as crucial to social competence and necessary for the creation and maintenance of a range of relationships with other people. Examples of the relationship between mental state and understanding behaviour include the following (Marschark, et al. , 2000; Meltzoff, 1999; Reiffe and Terwogt, 2000): Desires: A child recognizes that Mum reaches into the biscuit barrel because she wants a biscuit. Emotions: A child observes that another child is crying and comments that the child feels sad.
Intentions: When an adult throws a ball toward a basket but misses, a child will pick up the ball and drop the ball in the basket because the child understands that the adult intended to have the ball go into the basket. Beliefs: A child sees that her parent’s keys are on the kitchen table. However, the child recognizes that the parent is looking in her purse for her keys because she thinks (believes) they are there. The general supposition is that a theory of mind is developed around the age of four. This is supported by the false belief paradigm.
An understanding of false belief is often measured by an unexpected contents task or a displaced object task (Marschark, et al. , 2000; Peterson, 2004). Wimmer and Perner (1983) conducted research where children aged three and four were presented with stories in which a character holds a belief which the child knows to be false and thus different from his/her own. The question is whether the child can correctly predict the character’s action given the false belief. An example of this is the ‘Sally Anne Task’ (Frith, 1989).
Sally places a marble in a basket and then leaves the room, whereupon Anne moves the marble to another location. Sally returns and looks for the marble. The child being tested is then asked where Sally will look. Most three year olds will think that Sally will look in the new location, therefore showing their inability to infer a false belief to Sally. However, from four years on children will give the right answer; they can understand that others may have beliefs which do not reflect reality (Frith, 1989).
Until around four years of age children assume that there is only one world, which matches with their own experience. The false belief paradigm shows that such children cannot yet mentally represent to themselves alternative views – those different from their own – of a particular event. When children have developed a theory of mind they obtain the ability to represent another person’s conflicting view and can understand another’s lack of knowledge. They have come to realise that what one person believes to be true may actually be false (Schaffer, 1996).
These new abilities depend on various precursors which are evident at earlier ages. Harris (1989) argues that the acquisition of a theory of mind depends on the development of self-awareness, the capacity for pretence and the ability to distinguish reality from pretence. Self awareness is apparent from quite an early age, it is obvious in children’s’ expression of their feelings and desires. This is an indicator of a child’s understanding of mental operations generally.
We can see children developing a capacity for pretence through make-believe play as they attribute mental states to dolls, for example, therefore suggesting an understanding of how other people work. Harris (1989) suggests that when children manage to differentiate between reality and pretence, realising that other people are not just an extension of the child’s only desires, this is when children will not confuse the mental states of others with their own. It is not until the fourth year that children can imagine another person’s feelings and views even thought they are not the child’s own (Harris, 1989).