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he core concepts involved in Theory of Mind are beliefs, desires, and

intentions, which are used to understand why someone acts in a certain way
or to predict how someone will act (Kloo et al., 2010). Overall, Theory of Mind
involves understanding another person's knowledge, beliefs, emotions, and
intentions and using that understanding to navigate social situations. A
commonly used task to measure Theory of Mind is a false-belief task, such as
this:

1. Show the child a Band-Aid box and ask the child what he/she thinks is
inside the box. He or she will likely respond “Band-Aids.”
2. Open the box and show him/her that there is a toy pig inside, while
saying “Let’s see....it’s really a pig inside!” Then close the box.
3. Now, as you are bringing a toy figurine boy who has been hidden up until
now into view, the adults says “Peter has never ever seen inside this
Band-Aid box. Now, here comes Peter. So, what does Peter think is in
the box? Band-Aids or a pig?” (Wellman & Liu, 2004)
This task measures the child’s understanding that someone may hold a belief
about an event or object that does not match what the child knows to be true
in reality. Children who have developed Theory of Mind will understand that
Peter holds a different understanding than them because he did not see in the
box. They will respond that Peter thinks Band-Aids are in the box. Those who
have yet to develop Theory of Mind might respond that Peter thinks there are
pigs in the box, mistakenly assuming Peter holds the same belief as they do.

When do children develop Theory of Mind?

Around age 4, children improve on tasks of Theory of Mind and are able to
understand that someone may be acting based on a false belief about an
object or event (Kloo et al., 2010). Anecdotally, in my own work with
preschoolers, 3-year-olds tend to understand that Peter didn’t see inside the
box, but still respond that Peter thinks a pig is in the box. It is from older
preschoolers—the 4- and 5-year olds—that I most frequently received the
response that Peter thinks Band-Aids are in the box, suggesting that these
older preschoolers had some level of false-belief understanding.

For kids with developmental delays, such as those with autism spectrum
disorders (ASD), Theory of Mind may take a little longer to develop, and some
higher level skills may not be reached at all. Youth (ages 5 to 13) with autism
received lower scores on measures of understanding others’ beliefs and
emotions than typically developing youth, but there were no differences for
understanding the intentions of others (Mazz et al, 2017), possibly because
understanding intentions is a less complex skill that develops earlier than
understanding beliefs and emotions. Theory of Mind also predicted ASD
diagnosis, such that those with the lowest level of such skills had more severe
diagnoses (i.e. autism with intellectual disability) as compared to diagnoses
for those with more sophisticated Theory of Mind skills (Asperger’s syndrome)
(Hoogenhout & Malcolm-Smith, 2016). Theory of Mind clearly plays a role in
the manifestation of developmental delays, with differences between those
with delays and typically developing youth persisting into
middle childhood and even adolescence. By understanding Theory of Mind,
perhaps we can not only better diagnose those with delays, but also create
more effective interventions for encouraging and supporting developmental
progress.

Source: Brittany Thompson


How is Theory of Mind related to other areas of development?

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False-belief understanding, independent of a child’s language ability and age,
has been related to various aspects of social functioning, including one’s
ability to engage in meaningful conversations, ability to resolve conflicts and
maintain intimacy in friendships, and overall social competence as rated by
teachers (Astington, 2003). So, children who have an understanding of false
beliefs generally are more advanced in social development as well. Moreover,
understanding others’ emotions and beliefs plays a role in developing social
competency for children, and the lack of these components of Theory of Mind,
which may be evident for those with autism or other developmental delays,
may compromise social development (Mazz et al, 2017).

There is some evidence that executive function (EF) skills (i.e., inhibition,
shifting, cognitive flexibility) are related to Theory of Mind, such that
preschoolers with more advanced EF skills are better able to hold multiple
perspectives in mind at once and switch between those perspectives
(Diamond, 2006), which may assist in distinguishing between reality and the
belief of another person (Kloo et al., 2010). Executive function has also been
linked to social competence, such that deficits result in lower levels of social
competence (Alduncin, Huffman, Fedman, & Loe, 2014), but social
competence (i.e. prosocial skills and engagement in interactions) has also
shown a relationship to the development of executive function (Bierman et al.,
2009; Park & Lee, 2015, Williford et al., 2013).

So, what does all of this mean? That Theory of Mind plays a complex role in
development. Theory of Mind is related to social competence, and social
competence is related to executive function. But executive function also
contributes to social competence and possibly Theory of Mind skills. There is
a lot of new research focusing on these relationships, so we are continuing to
fine-tune our understanding of how these three areas of development
influence one another.

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Research is still working to flesh out the directionality of these relationships,
which is important to continue to pursue so that we can help kids reach their
potential in all these areas. Social skills are difficult to teach, model, and
encourage for all young children, especially those who are delayed in their
development. If we can understand the mechanisms behind social
competence, such as executive functioning and Theory of Mind, we may be
able to help all kids meet the social expectations they encounter in everyday
life.
Source: Brittany Thompson
Personally, I think executive function is related to social competence, such
that those with higher levels of executive function skills also have more social
competence, with that relationship being partially explained by Theory of
Mind, such as in the model shown here. The relationship between social
competence and executive function could be more complex and bidrectional,
as suggested in some of the literature, but I believe it is most important to
determine if EF skills relate to Theory of Mind and social competence in this
way. Understanding how the underlying mechanism of EF influences one’s
social development can helps us create new interventions for children with
autism who may struggle with social interactions. These interventions could
focus on cognitive and EF components that may help develop social
competence, making the intervention less anxiety-provoking and more
accessible.

References

Alduncin, N., Huffman, L. C., Feldman, H. M., & Loe, I. M. (2014). Executive function is
associated with social competence in preschool-aged children born preterm or full
term. Early Human Development, 90(6), 299–306. doi:10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2014.02.011

Astington, J. W. (2003). Sometimes necessary, never sufficient: False-belief understanding


and social competence. In B. Repacholi & V. Slaughter (Eds.), Individual differences in
theory of mind: Implications for typical and atypical development (pp. 13–38). New York,
NY, US: Psychology Press.

Bierman, K. L., Torres, M. M., Domitrovich, C. E., Welsh, J. A., & Gest, S. D. (2009).
Behavioral and cognitive readiness for school: Cross-domain associations for children
attending Head Start. Social Development, 18(2), 305–323. doi:10.1111/j.1467-
9507.2008.00490.x