Theory of Mind: How We Learn to Understand Each Other

Theory of mindAs psychologists, coaches, therapists, and humans, we spend a great deal of our time focused on what we and our clients are feeling and thinking.

While that’s vital to wellbeing, functioning, and performance across all life domains, so are awareness and understanding of others’ “thoughts, wants, hopes, imagining, and knowing” (Wellman, 2015, p. 2).

Theory of mind (ToM) is one of the most vital aspects of human life, allowing us to infer other human’s values and goals and predict their behavior (Navarro, 2022).

This article examines the fascinating area of ToM, answering several key questions. What is it? Why does it matter? And how do we test for it?

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What Is Theory of Mind? A Definition

“Theory of mind (ToM) is considered the ability to understand the beliefs, knowledge, and intentions of others based on their behavior” (Navarro, 2022, p. 1).

The term was first used in relation to the ability of chimpanzees to infer human goals. It has since become a vital perspective, offering insights into how we are able to figure out and predict the behavior of our family, partners, and coworkers — in fact, everyone we connect with (Navarro, 2022; Miller, 2022).

ToM continues to receive a great deal of research attention (with over 7,000 articles and more than 1,000 books written on the subject). It has been studied in connection with several other essential constructs, including (Navarro, 2022):

  • Communication
  • Understanding criticism
  • Deception
  • Joking and lying
  • Irony
  • Pragmatic language competence
  • Problem-solving
  • Schizophrenia
  • Autism spectrum disorder

ToM has a vital role to play in what it means to be human because it recognizes that “human social cognition is founded on an understanding of ourselves and others in terms of our inner, mental, and psychological states” (Wellman, 2015, p. 2).

Why is it important?

ToM is vital to our daily interactions with others. It allows us to understand and interpret others’ thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, though not always correctly. As such, it is essential to building empathy and effective communication (Navarro, 2022).

Predicting and anticipating others’ behavior helps us make solid judgments and appropriate decisions in social situations, supporting empathy and understanding while reducing the likelihood of (and resolving) conflicts (Navarro, 2022).

ToM is also an essential part of social and cognitive development and, when interrupted or limited, can restrict a child’s ability to communicate and relate to others in their lives (Wellman, 2015).

Check out this valuable and fascinating video to understand the ToM concept better and how to assess it.

The theory of mind test - The Globe and Mail

3 Examples of Theory of Mind

The following examples highlight the importance of ToM for communication and understanding those around us. They also represent the diversity of research focus.

Chimps

Thirty years after David Premack and Guy Woodruff’s (1978) seminal study, researchers revisited the question, “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” (Call & Tomasello, 2008, p. 1).

Call and Tomasello (2008) reviewed and assessed the wealth of research over three decades and found many indicators supporting the idea that chimpanzees have a degree of understanding of others’ goals and intentions.

Chimpanzees appear capable of being aware that the person they are observing may have a belief that contradicts their own, such as where food is hidden. The chimp, therefore, behaves based on what they know and what others know (Call & Tomasello, 2008).

Children

Children’s ToM develops from age 2, when they begin to “understand that other people have mental states, which influence their actions and behavior” (Lord, 2022, p. 131).

As children’s ToM develops, they are more likely to comfort, cooperate, and help others. It is also linked to better performance in schools.

For example, around 4 years old, they become aware that their own thoughts may not be accurate, which may also be the case for others. If they open a candy box and are surprised to find crayons inside, they recognize that others could also be tricked (Lord, 2022; Woolfolk, 2021).

Artificial intelligence

Claims made by Michal Kosinski, a psychologist at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, that recent advances in generative artificial intelligence (AI) have led to an artificial ToM have been widely rejected (Whang, 2023).

While chatbots show a startling ability to hold a conversation with individuals, and neural networks can exhibit a high degree of accuracy in recognizing faces, it is not the same as ToM.

One test Kosinski put forward in support of his argument suggests that an AI was correct in predicting whether another individual might think a marble was still in a box when it was moved without them seeing it happen (Whang, 2023).

However, this was experimentally challenged, with critics suggesting that how the conversational prompt was written would affect the outcome (Whang, 2023).

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Theory of Mind Tests

ToM tests are valuable for understanding the degree to which individuals (or even AI) can understand and interpret the mental states of others (Navarro, 2022).

Several examples include:

False-belief task

The first task developed to assess ToM was the false-belief task, often used with children between 4 and 5 years old (Bernstein et al., 2011).

It involves presenting two scenarios to the child: one in which a character holds a false belief and the other in which a different character has a true belief.

The child is then asked questions or given tasks to assess their ability to recognize and understand that others (in this case, the characters) can have different beliefs (Bernstein et al., 2011; Navarro, 2022).

Theory of Mind Task Battery

The Theory of Mind Task Battery has been developed for clinical purposes to assess clients’ ToM competencies. It involves a set of 15 questions in nine tasks, presented as short vignettes (Theory of Mind Inventory-2, 2020).

Typically, the test is presented in a storybook format and is suitable for children and nonverbal individuals who can respond through pointing (Theory of Mind Inventory-2, 2020).

The test makers offer a helpful tutorial explaining how to use it with clients.

Theory of Mind Task Battery

Diverse desire task

The child is presented with two pictures that vary in desirability, for example, a carrot and a cookie. The researcher or counselor then engages in a conversation similar to the following (Psychology at Staffordshire University, 2020):

“Here are two different snacks. Which one would you like best?”

Next, the adult introduces a puppet or model called Farmer Tom.

“Farmer Tom really likes carrots but does not like cookies.

So, now it’s snack time. Which one do you think Farmer Tom will choose?”

To pass the test, the child must select the correct snack (carrots) for the farmer despite their personal preference (most likely cookies).

Real–apparent emotion task

Understanding others’ emotions is vital to a developing child. In this task, the child is tested on their ability to identify how another person (or character) feels and what emotions they display (Psychology at Staffordshire University, 2020).

Here’s an example (Psychology at Staffordshire University, 2020):

A silhouette of a small boy called Sam is placed on the table alongside three face emoji: happy, sad, and in between.

The child is then asked to select the appropriate face (or emotion) relating to a series of sentences based on an anecdote.

For example:

How would Sam feel if an older boy in the group told a joke about him, and everyone laughed at him?

To “pass,” the child must be able to select the correct emoji to show that despite feeling upset inside, Sam may attempt to hide how he feels by appearing neutral or happy.

The 4 Developmental Stages

Developmental stages of ToMThere are several different views of how children develop ToM. The following is one such staged developmental perspective (Westby & Robinson, 2014):

  • Stage 1 – Pre-ToM, engagement

From birth to approximately 18 months old, babies develop emotional sharing and attention skills and start to understand the emotions of others.

  • Stage 2 – Pre-ToM, development and assessment

Between 18 months and 4 years, infants begin to build on their sense of self, engage in pretend play, and learn how others think and feel.

  • Stage 3 – First-order ToM

“Neurotypical children usually pass first-order ToM tasks between 4 and 5 years of age” (Westby & Robinson, 2014, p. 374). Children at this point understand that others have false beliefs, develop autobiographical memory, and can think about the past and future.

  • Stage 4 – Second-order ToM and higher

Typically, stage four begins immediately after the development of first-order ToM. Children understand figurative language (similes and metaphors, etc.) and sarcasm, learn metacognitive strategies (problem-solving, planning and organization, and self-monitoring), and display more advanced conversational interactions.

It is important to note that these are suggested rather than strict and definitive stages on the path to developing ToM. Children will differ when they reach each state, and their characteristics will vary (Westby & Robinson, 2014).

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Differences Across Cultures

Researchers often note the differences between collectivist cultures that focus on group commonalities and interdependence, such as those in East Asia, and individualistic cultures that are distinctively individual and independent, such as those in Canada, the United States, and Western Europe (Wellman, 2015).

The results suggest that children first grasp knowledge before understanding beliefs in collectivist cultures, such as in China, where collective harmony is prioritized. In contrast, in individualistic cultures such as those in the United States, which emphasize personal independence, the development of ToM begins with understanding diverse beliefs (Wellman, 2015).

ToM & Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Neurodevelopmental DisordersToM may fail to develop successfully in children with neurodevelopmental disorders or severely restricted linguistic inputs, such as (Korkmaz, 2011).

  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
    Individuals with ASD find it difficult to assess their own and others’ mental states. However, with appropriate motivation, adults can often perform conceptual ToM tasks.
  • Developmental language disorders
    Specific language impairments can limit the development of ToM, particularly regarding false-belief understanding.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
    Children with ADHD frequently struggle to recognize emotions, facial expressions, empathy, and prosody (the rhythm and intonation of spoken language that convey meaning and emotion).

They may also experience executive dysfunction (difficulties in managing tasks, organizing, planning, and executing actions), which severely restricts and causes problems with ToM and social functioning.

  • Schizophrenia
    ToM deficits may explain some of the symptoms associated with schizophrenia, where individuals struggle to understand their own and others’ mental states.
  • Personality disorders
    “Many people with personality disorders, particularly schizoid, schizotypal, antisocial, narcissistic, borderline, and paranoid personality disorders, as well as children with conduct disorder, display some deficits in ToM” (Korkmaz, 2011, p. 105). It may involve difficulty empathizing, interpreting feelings and thoughts, and predicting the behavior of others.

While the ToM has an intuitive appeal, it has its critics. Several commonly raised difficulties and criticisms associated with the model include (Plastow, 2012; Wellman, 2015):

  • Everyday life misunderstandings
    ToM does not account for the day-to-day misunderstandings we experience when dealing with others. Also, it ignores the motivations and emotions that influence our understanding of one another.
  • Experimental limitations
    The scenarios used to test ToM often involve a degree of cognition and comprehension that is potentially underdeveloped in young children. Additionally, such third-party perspectives may not accurately represent what they experience in the real world.
  • Lack of sensitivity and specificity
    While often used as a diagnostic tool for autism, some autistic individuals can still pass the tests.
  • Alternative perspectives
    ToM is not the only perspective. Other approaches focus on the importance of emotions, embodiment, and non-cognitive engagement with others. Critics suggest that ToM fails to capture the true nature of human relationships and how we relate to each other.

ToM offers a valuable perspective on connecting, relating, and understanding one another. However, it does not appear to fully explain all the complexities of human relationships (Plastow, 2012).

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Helpful Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have many helpful resources available for counselors and coaches working with clients to improve their understanding and empathy with others.

Free resources include:

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • Breathing together
    Mindfulness offers an alternative pathway to forming stronger connections in a relationship.

Try the following steps:

    • Step one – Sit upright, facing one another.
    • Step two – Eyes shut, begin breathing, paying attention to each breath as it flows in and out of the body.
    • Step three – After a few minutes, open your eyes and naturally connect with the person in front of you.
    • Step four – Begin to synchronize your breathing with your partner.
    • Step five – Allow yourself to notice your thoughts and feelings.
    • Step six – Afterward, share your thoughts and feelings with your partner.
  • Building the 5 Rituals of Connection
    Rituals are valuable for encouraging communicative behavior in a relationship and recognizing their specific emotional significance.

Try out the following four steps:

    • Step one – Introduce several ritual types, such as parting, affection, and date nights.
    • Step two – Offer specific actions to translate rituals into reality.
    • Step three – Track and record weekly rituals and how successful they are.
    • Step four – Reflect on positive emotions and the impact of putting in place meaningful rituals.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, check out this signature collection of 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.

A Take-Home Message

ToM is defined as our ability to infer the goals and understand the emotions and thinking of another. As such, it is vital to what it means to be human.

It recognizes our basic need for connection and attempts to explore and explain how we interpret another’s thoughts and feelings and anticipate their behavior (Navarro, 2022).

Despite being first developed over four decades ago to explain research findings on the ability of chimpanzees to understand one another and humans, it continues to receive much experimental focus.

As a result, a vast amount of research has been conducted on ToM, ranging from studies on children and individuals with neurodevelopmental or communicative disorders to the emerging field of artificial intelligence (Korkmaz, 2011; Whang, 2023).

This breadth of research underscores the significance of ToM in understanding our uniquely human connection to others.

For counselors and mental health practitioners, understanding the concept of ToM, the developmental stages we pass through, and its impact on communication is vital for ensuring that our clients meet their basic psychological needs and form solid and fulfilling relationships with others.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

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  • Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2008). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(5), 187–192.
  • Korkmaz, B. (2011). Theory of mind and neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. Pediatric Research, 69, 101–108.
  • Lord, J. (2022). Psychology of education: Theory, research and evidence-based practice. SAGE.
  • Miller, S. A. (2022). Advanced theory of mind. Oxford University Press.
  • Navarro, E. (2022). What is theory of mind? A psychometric study of theory of mind and intelligence. Cognitive Psychology, 136,  Article 101495.
  • Plastow, M. (2012). ‘Theory of mind’ II: Difficulties and critiques. Australasian Psychiatry, 20(4), 291–294.
  • Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(4), 515–526.
  • Psychology at Staffordshire University. (2020). Theory of mind experiments to do at home with your children. https://blogs.staffs.ac.uk/inpsych/2020/05/28/theory-of-mind-experiments-to-do-at-home-with-your-children/
  • Theory of Mind Inventory-2. (2020). Theory of mind task battery. https://www.theoryofmindinventory.com/task-battery/
  • Wellman, H. M. (2015). Making minds: How theory of mind develops. Oxford University Press.
  • Westby, C., & Robinson, L. (2014). A developmental perspective for promoting theory of mind. Topics in Language Disorders, 34(4), 362–382.
  • Whang, O. (2023, March 27). Can a machine know that we know what it knows? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/27/science/ai-machine-learning-chatbots.html
  • Woolfolk, A. (2021). Educational psychology. Pearson.
  • Workman, L., & Reader, W. (2015). Evolutionary psychology: An introduction. Cambridge University Press.

Frequently Asked Questions

Theory of mind (ToM) can be developed and enhanced through social interactions and appropriate training. While an innate predisposition is a factor, ToM naturally develops through stages, particularly during childhood (Navarro, 2022; Workman & Reader, 2015).

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders typically find it difficult to assess their own and others’ mental states. With appropriate motivation and a suitable environment, autistic adults can often perform conceptual theory of mind tasks (Korkmaz, 2011).

While there is likely to be an innate predisposition toward theory of mind, its development begins in infancy and progresses through several developmental stages influenced by social and environmental factors (Navarro, 2022; Workman & Reader, 2015).

Theory of mind and empathy are related but distinct concepts. The former is cognitive, involving understanding the mental states of others, while the latter is more affective, suggesting feeling another person’s emotions (Navarro, 2022).

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