Theory of Mind Research Paper Starter

Theory of Mind

An overview of Theory of Mind and its role and impacts on student learning in public school education environments is presented. Also presented is a brief look at the current research pertaining to Theory of Mind and its relationship to children and their developmental processes. Further analyzed are ways social skills are impacted by Theory of Mind in accordance with age related behavioral processes. Further presented are implications for classrooms and applications are described that include roles and impacts on certain groups including students, teachers, and administrators. Solutions are offered to help professionals develop the most effective programs through consistent, research based methodologies and philosophies.

Keywords Emotion Understanding; False Belief; Prefrontal Cortex; Self Awareness; Theory of Mind (ToM)


Theory of Mind (ToM) is the term given to “the human ability to infer the intentions of others and to understand that their actions are guided by beliefs about the world” (Mizrahi, Korostil, Starkstein, Zipursky & Shitij, 2007). Theory of Mind can also be described as "the ability to understand and reason about [a child's] own and others' mental states (such as understanding that the mind can misrepresent reality)” (Birch & Bernstein, 2007, p. 99). According to McHugh, Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes, Stewart, & Dymond (2007), an individual's “knowledge of informational states in the self and others develops across five levels originating from simple visual perspective taking to understanding true and false beliefs” (p. 518).

The first three levels of Theory of Mind consist of

• Simple visual perspective taking,

• Complex visual perspective taking, and

• Applying information based on the principle of seeing leads to knowing.

Levels 4 and 5 of this framework “consist of the development of understanding true and false beliefs. According to this model, the skills of perspective-taking are believed to be essential prerequisites for the development of true and false beliefs” (McHugh, et al., 2007, p. 518). The study of the Theory of Mind is a relatively new area of brain research. Findings from these studies are leading educators to better understanding developmental processes of children in new and expanded ways. This paper seeks to outline research, practice, and implications for educational professionals and psychologists seeking to better understand how brain development impacts student thinking and behavior.

Theory of Mind in Young Children

One of the findings from research is that Theory of Mind is age related and developmentally related. This holds multiple meanings in terms of educational and social planning. In particular, several studies have been conducted with three-year-old children. One such study involved showing a child a closed candy box and asking the child to determine what was inside the box. Typically, three-year-old children state the answer as "candy." However, after the researcher opened the box to reveal pencils and then closed the box again and asked the child what he or she thought was inside the box before it was opened, the child answered, "pencils" (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001). Typically, when adults ask preschool aged children to state facts and later ask them if they have known these facts for a long time or just learned them today, children will insist that they have known these facts all along and that their friend will also know (Taylor, Esbensen, & Bennett, 1994). These are important findings from Theory of Mind research that relate specifically to hindsight.

Hindsight Bias

Conclusions have been proposed that support children's Theory of Mind relationship to hindsight bias in adults as shared core components of a similarly occurring phenomenon (Bernstein, Erdfelder, Meltzoff, Peria & Loftus, 2011). This core component consists of a tendency to be biased by one's current knowledge when attempting to remember or make sense of a more naïve cognitive state. In order to more fully understand hindsight bias a more developmental approach should be able to provide a unified understanding of the nature of hindsight bias (Birch & Bernstein, 2007, p. 99). Researchers studying Theory of Mind need to understand that the research and theoretical framework constructing this new knowledge is potentially explosive in impacting both the fields of education and psychology in brain research and child learning. It could be argued that Theory of Mind is one of the key theories on the forefront of unlocking how to teach and socialize in accordance with developmental milestones based on the notion of when children can begin to integrate interpersonal perspective-taking within their social and learning framework.

Theorists argue that hindsight bias bears a striking resemblance and connection to Theory of Mind and the types of errors that young children make in Theory of Mind reasoning. These errors demonstrate that young children who are taught new information are unable to recall which information they have known longer, information they learned moments before, or information they have known for a long time (Taylor et al, 1994). Moreover, these deficits spill over into their judgments regarding the knowledge of other people. For example, it has been demonstrated that preschool children tend to behave as if seeing a small uninformative part of an object is sufficient for someone else to know the object's identity (Taylor, 1988) regardless of the age or identity of the person with whom they are sharing joint attention. In order to help children develop Theory of Mind, lessons could be constructed in the classroom using quadrants of pictures or art. Children could then be asked to determine the full object based on their model of perception. Misperceptions and myths could then be dispelled using this lesson framework. This lesson could be utilized at various ages to facilitate perception development for older students as well as younger students.

From an educational perspective, it should be noted that Theory of Mind changes as children age. Generally, four-and-five-year-olds tend to perform much better on Theory of Mind tasks. With age, research suggests that children improve in their ability to better understand sources of knowledge (Gopnik & Graf, 1988; Roberts & Blades, 2000), about what others are likely to know based on limited information (Taylor, 1988; Taylor et al, 1991), and regarding their own and other's false beliefs (Wellman et al., 2001). However, in other studies of Theory of Mind task correlations were established between children's Theory of Mind and adult's Hindsight bias. Birch and Bloom (2007) demonstrated that when sensitive measures are used, adults can also experience difficulty reasoning about false beliefs. During investigations that sought to determine this connection, findings reported that outcome knowledge can compromise an adult's ability to reason about their own false beliefs and internal assumptions (Birch & Bernstein, 2007, p. 105). Wimmer and Perner similarly determined that younger children could not complete Theory of Mind tasks successfully because they were unable to reconcile the conflict between reality and their own knowledge of the truth (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001).Other studies have demonstrated an even more cogent relationship between age and developmental stages.

The Role of Deception

According to other Theory of Mind research, in order to successfully complete many Theory of Mind tasks, children must reach a developmental stage termed as Level 5. Evidence of this can be found from research that has been done to better understand deception.

“Deception involves understanding other minds, because it requires a person to make someone else believe that something is true when in fact it is false” (McHugh et al., 2007, p. 518). From a Theory of Mind construct, deception involves the deliberate planning and communication of a false belief to another. In typically developing children, deception can occur successfully in a child that is about six-years-old (Marvin, Greenberg, & Mossler, 1976). In order to deceive, Theory of Mind researchers delve further into the complex cognitive abilities that produce deception. Theorists posture that deception requires a myriad of complex intra-personal perspective taking. First, in order to deceive, a child must be able to take the perspective of another individual to determine what the other person will believe from the information provided. Second, the child must be able to reason within the framework of "if-then relation" controlling the transfer of information. Third, the child must be able to transfer information in accordance with a "relation of distinction" (McHugh et al, 2007, p. 520). Again, this research indicates that very young children are impaired in their ability to take the perspectives of others (p. 521). The inability to possess a well-developed Theory of Mind poses several negative impacts for children and adults.

Theory of Mind

In terms of social society, Theory of Mind plays an essential role. An individual with a well-developed Theory of Mind should be able to think about, make intelligent inferences, and accurately infer another person's mind set and emotions. This person would be good at speculating what another person might be thinking and would have a greater awareness of other people's thoughts, feelings, and potential motives. Research has suggested that Theory of Mind can be considered as a module within the human mind dedicated solely to reading the intent and mind set of other...

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