The theory of mind is a concept in psychology that refers how someone ascribes mental states – such as beliefs, intentions, desires, and emotions – to both oneself and others.
This is not limited to only understanding what someone might believe or desire, but it extends to surmising their emotional state and thoughts as well.
As we cannot directly see (only experience through their facial expressions or spoken words) what people are thinking, the concept has been aptly labeled as the ‘theory’ of mind.
Theory of Mind Overview
Premack & Woodruff (1978) were the first to coin the term theory of mind (TOM), where they were referring to the ability to understand and infer the mental states of others by reading social cues.
Theory of mind includes the ability to infer desires, knowledge, beliefs, and intentions. This, in turn, enables us to predict people’s behaviors before they occur and understand the underlying reasons behind people’s behaviors.
Having a theory of mind enables us to navigate complex social situations, empathize with others, and engage in successful social interactions.
The ability to ascribe mental states to oneself and others is thought to develop during early childhood. Research has shown that inability to ascribe mental states is linked to various neurodivergent conditions such as autism spectrum disorder.
Premack & Woodruff (1978) explain their idea succinctly:
“…one infers states that are not directly observable and one uses these states anticipatorily, to predict the behavior of others as well as one’s own. These inferences, which amount to a theory of mind, are, to our knowledge, universal in human adults. ” (p. 525).
Components of Theory of Mind
There are several key components of Theory of Mind including but not limited to:
- Perception: The ability to perceive and recognize emotional and mental states is necessary in order to have a theory of mind. People with strong theory of mind are perceptive. Perceptiveness can include the ability to identify facial expressions, body language, and other social cues that signal a person’s emotional state.
- Contextualization: In order to most effectively attribute perceived behaviors to a mental state, we need contextualization. It involves using situational information, past experiences, cultural beliefs, and social norms to understand the most likely mental state that a person has based upon a given situation.
- Perspective-taking: Perspective-taking refers to the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It involves suspending your own perspective and looking at a situation from another person’s point of view. This skill, referred to by Piaget as ‘overcoming egocentrism’, helps us understand and predict how others might feel or react in certain situations.
- Predicting: Theory of mind helps us to predict how a person might behave based upon their mental state. For example, if we see our husband or wife is in a bad mood, we might choose to give them space they need to cool off. However, another husband or wife in a bad mood might need a hug; so, predicting refers to both understanding mental states and an individual’s personality, and putting the two together.
- Social learning: Social learning is the process of acquiring knowledge through social interactions. In part, we develop a theory of mind through social learning. Through sustained engagement with others, we develop an understanding of the connection between their behaviors and mental states.
15 Theory of Mind Examples
- A person walks into a room and senses that there is a tense mood. The people are quiet and not making eye contact. So, they are cautious to not offend anyone.
- A child sees their sibling searching for a toy in the wrong cupboard and understands that their friend has a false belief about where the toy is kept.
- A person realizes their friend is upset based on their body language, tone of voice, and mood. They feel a sense of empathy.
- While teaching their class, a teacher looks out over the students and sees on the students’ faces that the students are confused and have lost track, so they pause, slow down, and provide further clarification.
- Someone recognizes that their coworker is stressed about an upcoming deadline because they’ve been tense and staying back at work lately. So, they offer help to ease their workload.
- During a salary negotiation, an employee infers the employer’s priorities and goals based on their reactions and statements. So, the employee adjusts her strategy accordingly.
- A person is watching a movie and predicts the reactions and emotions of the characters based upon the progression of the storyline, even if they have not yet been shown on screen.
- A movie director asks the actors to re-do the scene with a longer pause between comments in order to build-up suspense, knowing that this will help viewers to better ascertain the mental states of the actors.
- A driver notices that the car behind them is driving a little too close, so they infer that the driver must be highly-strung and in a rush. They react to the state of mind of the person behind by pulling aside and letting them past.
- A child understands that not everyone likes the same things that they do and accepts that. So, when a friend says they want to play soccer instead of tennis, they don’t find it unusual.
- A mother sees her daughter is in pain and understands that her daughter will to want to relive that pain in order to relax.
- A woman gets home from work after a long and stressful day, pours herself a drink, and lays on her couch. Her intuitive dog comes up and gives her a quiet cuddle out of empathy.
- Out at a party one night, a guy asks a girl for her number. The girl infers a few red flags about his behavior and, thinking he doesn’t have the best intentions, decline to give him her number.
- When two people from completely different cultures communicate, due to cultural differences, it may be difficult to accurately read social cues, expressions, or gestures.
- Jane is 4 years old, and she can understand if someone is angry, sad, or happy by deciphering observational cues.
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Children Overcoming Egocentrism
Scenario: A child understands that not everyone likes the same things that they do, and people have individual preferences.
Very young children tend to be extremely self-centered, and often cannot relate, or mentalize, the feelings of the people around them.
Gradually, as they begin to comprehend the world more fully, they understand what upsets people, and make predictions about how people are feeling based on visual cues.
Additionally, they realize that not everyone likes the same things in life (e.g., foods, tv shows, cars, clothing, etc.).
2. Understanding Emotion
Scenario: Jane is 4 years old, and she can understand if someone is angry, sad, or happy by deciphering observational cues.
According to Grazzani et al. (2018), a child’s understanding of emotion develops around 3-4 years of age. Around these ages, children’s control and regulation of emotion builds rapidly.
Around this age, they also have the increasing ability to identify, predict, and explain emotion in both themselves and others.
Grazzani and colleagues (2018) argue that 3-4 year old children work on achieving mastery of three initial components:
- Ability to recognize and explain facial expressions (such as sadness, happiness, fear, and anger).
- Ability to understand how situational factors impact upon emotion.
- Ability to understand that needs and desires affect emotions.
3. Recognizing Non-Literal
Scenario: A person can decipher between when someone is speaking literally and non-literally.
A key aspect of theory of mind is the ability to infer non-literal statements and actions. This more advanced ability to understand mental states is necessary to navigate social interactions and situations.
For example, a person might say “Wow, you’re so cool, aren’t you!” for two reasons: sincerely, to tell someone that you are impressed by them, or ironically, to mock their high ego (Bosco et al., 2018).
The ability to infer irony or other non-literal tropes is necessary for humans.
Bosco et al. (2018) claim that children “start to distinguish lies from jokes” at around the age of 7.
However, they also argue that more distinct empirical research on theory of mind is required to draw concrete conclusions (para 13-14).
Theory of mind is an essential cognitive and social skill that a child needs to develop in order to effectively get along in social situations. It helps us to navigate social life, experience empathy, experience love, and provide love and support to others.
Beaudoin, C., Leblanc, E., Gagner, C., & Beauchamp, M. H. (2020). Systematic Review and Inventory of Theory of Mind Measures for Young Children. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02905
Byom, L., & Mutlu, B. (2013). Theory of mind: mechanisms, methods, and new directions. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00413
Grazzani, I., Ornaghi, V., Conte, E., Pepe, A., & Caprin, C. (2018). The Relation Between Emotion Understanding and Theory of Mind in Children Aged 3 to 8: The Key Role of Language. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00724
Krupenye, C., & Call, J. (2019). Theory of mind in animals: Current and future directions. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 10(6). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/wcs.1503
Nonnenmacher, N., Müller, M., Taczkowski, J., Zietlow, A., Sodian, B., & Reck, C. (2021). Theory of Mind in Pre-school Aged Children: Influence of Maternal Depression and Infants’ Self-Comforting Behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.741786
Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(4), 515–526. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/s0140525x00076512