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Why Theory of Mind Matters

What is Theory of Mind?

Simply put, if you have a Theory of Mind (ToM) you have an idea of what people think, know, and believe. If a person’s ToM is weak, we would likely describe them as having poor perspective-taking ability. When a person’s ability to ‘read others’ is exceptionally underdeveloped we might even say that person is mindblind. Technically speaking, Theory of Mind refers to the knowledge and awareness of mental states (perception, emotions and thoughts) in oneself and others, and allows the individual to predict and explain human behaviour that stems from intentions, desires and beliefs.

We now know that Theory of Mind develops in a reliable sequence of steps that can be observed from infancy onwards and that this developmental trajectory is stable across cultures. By the age of 2 years, before the child is able to reason about what a person believes, the typically developing child can reason about desires. In other words, they can figure out what someone else wants or does not want. Around the age of 4 years, the child can understand that someone can believe something that is not true. Although the earliest research on ToM focused on the preschool years, there is now evidence showing that ToM abilities continue to develop throughout middle childhood and early adolescence.

How is Theory of Mind typically developed?

Although there is still much that we don’t know about the development of ToM, the social environment within which children are raised appears to powerfully influence children’s ToM abilities. Social environmental elements associated with ToM include number of siblings, socioeconomic status, and involvement in conversation. Individual differences among typically developing children that appear to influence ToM ability include language ability, executive function, and working memory.

Delays in the development of ToM skills have been documented among those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing (and also born to hearing parents) as well as among individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. The common experience of these two populations is reduced exposure to verbal interactions during the earliest years, especially involving discussions of mental states.  This suggests the importance of language and verbal interactions, particularly those that involve mental state vocabulary.

Why does Theory of Mind matter?

A sizable number of studies have associated ToM skills with a variety of positive outcomes and behaviours including academic performance. Not surprisingly, ToM ability has also been linked to well-developed social skills. Being alert to what a person knows, wants, thinks or believes, and whether that person’s expectations have been met or not, in other words, having a mature ToM is critical to the fostering of positive peer relationships. Conversely, those with poor perspective-taking ability may appear insensitive, self-centered, or socially “clueless”. Children and youth with poor social skills may been seen by peers as quirky and naïve and perfect targets for bullying. Since having a close friend is typically protective and that having stable and long-lasting reciprocal friendships is considered to be a hallmark of a ‘good adult outcome’, attention to ToM development seems worthy of fostering among skills we teach to children and adolescents to enable them to make and keep friends.