Even young children are curious about the nature of the human mind (Apperly, 2012; Astington & Hughes, 2013; Wellman, 2011). They have a theory of mind, which refers to awareness of one’s own mental processes and the mental processes of others. Studies of theory of mind view the child as “a thinker who is trying to explain, predict, and understand people’s thoughts, feelings, and utterances” (Harris, 2006, p. 847).
Developmental Changes Children’s theory of mind changes as they develop through childhood (Gelman, 2013; Miller, 2012; Wellman, 2011). Although whether infants have a theory of mind continues to be questioned by some (Rakoczy, 2012), the consensus is that some changes occur quite early in development, as we see next.
From 18 months to 3 years of age, children begin to understand three mental states:
• Perceptions. By 2 years of age, a child recognizes that another person will see what’s in front of her own eyes instead of what’s in front of the child’s eyes (Lempers, Flavell, & Flavell, 1977), and by 3 years of age, the child realizes that looking leads to knowing what’s inside a container (Pratt & Bryant, 1990).
• Emotions. The child can distinguish between positive (for example, happy) and negative (sad, for example) emotions. A child might say, “Tommy feels bad.”
• Desires. All humans have some sort of desires. But when do children begin to recognize that someone else’s desires may differ from their own? Toddlers recognize that if people want something, they will try to get it. For instance, a child might say, “I want my mommy.”
Two- to three-year-olds understand the way that desires are related to actions and to simple emotions. For example, they understand that people will search for what they want and that if they obtain it, they are likely to feel happy, but if they don’t, they will keep searching for it and are likely to feel sad or angry (Wellman & Woolley, 1990). Children also refer to desires earlier and more frequently than they refer to cognitive states such as thinking and knowing (Bartsch & Wellman, 1995).
One of the landmark developments in understanding others’ desires is recognizing that someone else may have different desires from one’s own (Doherty, 2008). Eighteen-month-olds understand that their own food preferences may not match the preferences of others—they will give an adult the food to which she says “Yummy!” even if the food is something that the infants detest (Repacholi & Gopnik, 1997). As they get older, they can verbalize that they themselves do not like something but an adult might (Flavell & others, 1992).
Between the ages of 3 and 5, children come to understand that the mind can represent objects and events accurately or inaccurately (Low & Simpson, 2012). The realization that people can have false beliefs —beliefs that are not true—develops in a majority of children by the time they are 5 years old (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001) (see Figure 7.14). This point is often described as a pivotal one in understanding the mind—recognizing that beliefs are not just mapped directly into the mind from the surrounding world, but that different people can also have different, and sometimes incorrect, beliefs (Gelman, 2009). In a classic false-belief task, young children were shown a Band-Aids box and asked what was inside (Jenkins & Astington, 1996). To the children’s surprise, the box actually contained pencils. When asked what a child who had never seen the box would think was inside, 3-year-olds typically responded, “Pencils.” However, the 4- and 5-year-olds, grinning at the anticipation of the false beliefs of other children who had not seen what was inside the box, were more likely to say “Band-Aids.”
In a similar task, children are told a story about Sally and Anne: Sally places a toy in a basket and then leaves the room (see Figure 7.15). In her absence, Anne takes the toy from the basket and places it in a box. Children are asked where Sally will look for the toy when she returns. The major finding is that 3-year-olds tend to fail false-belief tasks, saying that Sally will look in the box (even though Sally could not have known that the toy has moved to this new location). Four-year-olds and older children tend to perform the task correctly, saying that Sally will have a “false belief ”—she will think the object is in the basket, even though that belief is now false. The conclusion from these studies is that children younger than 4 years old do not understand that it is possible to have a false belief.
However, there are many reasons to question the focus on this one supposedly pivotal moment in the development of a theory of mind. For example, the false-belief task is a complicated one that involves a number of factors such as the characters in the story and all of their individual actions (Bloom & German, 2000).
It is only beyond the preschool years—at approximately 5 to 7 years of age—that children have a deepening appreciation of the mind itself rather than just an understanding of mental states. For example, they begin to recognize that people’s behaviors do not necessarily reflect their thoughts and feelings (Flavell, Green, & Flavell, 1993). Not until middle and late childhood do children see the mind as an active constructor of knowledge or processing center (Flavell, Green, & Flavell, 1998) and move from understanding that beliefs can be false to realizing that the same event can be open to multiple interpretations (Carpendale & Chandler, 1996). For example, in one study, children saw an ambiguous line drawing (for example, a drawing that could be seen as either a duck or a rabbit); one puppet told the child she believed the drawing was a duck while another puppet told the child he believed the drawing was a rabbit (see Figure 7.16). Before the age of 7, children said that there was one right answer, and it was not okay for both puppets to have different opinions.
Although most research on children’s theory of mind focuses on children around or before their preschool years, at 7 years of age and beyond there are important developments in the ability to understand the beliefs and thoughts of others (Apperly, 2012; Miller, 2012). While understanding that people may have different interpretations is important, it is also necessary to recognize that some interpretations and beliefs may still be evaluated on the basis of the merits of arguments and evidence (Kuhn, Cheney, & Weinstock, 2000). In early adolescence, children begin to understand that people can have ambivalent feelings (Flavell & Miller, 1998). They start to recognize that the same person can feel both happy and sad about the same event. They also engage in more recursive thinking: thinking about what other people are thinking about.
Individual Differences As in other developmental research, there are individual differences in the ages when children reach certain milestones in their theory of mind (Pellicano, 2010). For example, children who talk with their parents about feelings frequently as 2-year-olds show better performance on theory of mind tasks (Ruffman, Slade, & Crowe, 2002), as do children who frequently engage in pretend play (Harris, 2000).
Executive function, which describes several functions (such as inhibition and planning) that are important for flexible, future-oriented behavior, also may be connected to theory of mind development (Carroll & others, 2012; Ford & others, 2012; Muller & others, 2012). For example, in one executive function task, children are asked to say the word “night” when they see a picture of a sun, and the word “day” when they see a picture of a moon and stars. Children who perform better at executive function tasks seem also to have a better understanding of theory of mind (Sabbagh & others, 2006).
Another individual difference in understanding the mind involves autism. To learn how theory of mind differs in children with autism, see Connecting Through Research.