The development of theory of mind in children

Theory of mind (ToM) is a specific cognitive ability to understand that other people have different intentions, desires and beliefs to one’s own. Theory of mind has been argued to be an innate, potential human ability but requires things such as language, social interaction and experience to develop. However the precise age in which ToM develops has come under some scrutiny, with many psychologists arguing it does not develop until the age of four and other psychologists presenting a contradictory argument claiming ToM is evident before four years. This essay will provide experimental evidence and support for the argument that ToM does not develop until around four years of age as well as opposing experimental evidence and theories that claim ToM develops at an earlier age, in an attempt to answer the question in focus; “Critically evaluate the claim that children do not develop a theory of mind until approximately 4 years of age”. There have been many proposed theoretical explanations of ToM development and the focus will be on theory theory, theory of mind module (TOMM), executive functions, language and false belief and experimental evidence to evaluate the claim that children do not develop ToM until approximately four years of age.

Theory of mind is an “understanding that people are cognitive beings with rich mental lives that are available to themselves and not others” (Schaffer 1996). According to Lewis and Mitchell (1994) ToM is “the ability to make inferences about others’ representational states and to predict behaviour accordingly.” The Theory of Mind was first proposed by Premack and Woodruff (1978) in their experiment on primates. They observed behaviours within chimpanzees that would require an understanding of another individuals’ mental reasoning. This observation has sparked lots of interest within the area of developmental psychology and a debate has arisen for which the precise age this ability develops is not clearly understood.

One area of theoretical and experimental evidence for ToM has come from Theory theory. Theory theory provides a constructivist account of ToM development, arguing children start with initial naive, unsophisticated understandings of the mind, but through interaction with the world, accumulate data and modify their initial theories. Carey (1985) and Wellman (1990) argued children act to work out hypotheses on how the world works to be able to predict, explain and understand phenomenon. Gopnik and Wellman (1994) propose that through stages of development children’s minds become more sophisticated. Around three years old a child has a more complex understanding of desires and perspectives but true ToM does not develop until around four years old. Gopnik and Wellman (1992, 1994) proposed that a two year old child is directly a mentalist (not a behaviourist), equipped with a desire/perception theory allowing for predictions of other peoples’ behaviour. Thus providing theoretical support for the initial development of ToM before the age of four. However, they argue that not until around four years of age a child is able to fully understand and employ mental terms such as think, know, remember and dream which are essential for a true ToM. Stich and Nichols (1995) provide a theoretical account for the observed development of ToM during the ages of two to five years. They proposed a transition through three stages of understanding; from a “desire psychology” to an “intermediate desire-belief psychology” and finally to a “belief-desire psychology”. In the second phase a child has some understanding of the concept of belief but it is not fully developed until the third and final stage at around four or five years of age. (Bartson and Wellman 1995). Therefore providing support for the claim that children do not develop full ToM until the age of four. However Leslie and German (1995) and Baron-Cohen (1995) have disagreed with other theory theorist, arguing the increased sophistication of conceptual knowledge should be seen as a general learning mechanism rather than theory building. Children progress through learning stages and not until the age of four are they able to pass false belief tasks and therefore demonstrate ToM, (Leslie, 2000). The different stages of cognitive development can be seen as an activation of various relevant cognitive modules rather than revision of a theory. This led to the development of the Theory of Mind Module (TOMM).

Leslie (2000) argued TOMM primarily provides a child with a reservoir of mental states that are innately programmed to activate at three years of age, therefore before the watershed of four years. Meltzoff and Prinz (2002) argued these reservoirs are innate, at 18 months of age a child is able to recognise underlying intentions of others bodily movements, suggesting a basic ToM, thus providing more evidence for development before the age of four. Evidence for TOMM has come from studies on children with autism and downs syndrome. Baron-Cohen et al (1985) conducted a very influential study investigating theory of mind. Their aim was to demonstrate that the central deficit underlying autism is the inability to employ theory of mind. Results from this study led Baron-Cohen to propose that the core problem in autism is the inability to think about other peoples’ thoughts as well as their own. Suggesting this deficit was down to physical damage to the brain that causes autism. Therefore arguing that theory of mind is an innate maturational process, thus providing support for TOMM. Children with autism were found to have impaired TOMM but not impairments in other modules, again supporting the view of a unique TOMM. However this study lacks ecological validity as dolls were used to represent real people. Leslie and Frith (1988) conducted a similar experiment but used real people rather than dolls, in spite of this change, similar results were gained. However it is impossible to observe the theory of mind module, thus the validity and reliability of these claims should be questioned.

The development of executive functions provides experimental and theoretical evidence for ToM. It has been argued that the ability to demonstrate theory of mind is related to the development of executive functions such as working memory, attention and self control, (Flynn et al, 2004, Hala et al, 2003). Pratt and Bryant (1990) proposed that by three years, most children begin to realise people gain knowledge about something by looking at it. By four years, children understand that particular senses provide information about certain qualities of objects, for example colour through eyes, (O’Neil and Chong, 2001). To fully employ ToM, a child must be able to demonstrate an appearance-reality distinction, (Bailystock and Senman, 2004, Flavell et al, 2002). O’Neil and Gopnik (1991) found that a child aged three was able to correctly identify by touch that an object was a ball but also claimed it was a blue ball, therefore failing to show a clear understanding of the differences between real events and mental events such as fantasies. However at four years a child did not show this lack of understanding. Flavell et al (2000) argued that children before the age of four have a limited understanding of mental representations, thus lacking ToM. Taylor and Hort (1990) provide experimental evidence that a child does not have an appearance-reality distinction until around the age of four years. They showed three to five year olds a variety of objects that had a misleading appearance, for example an eraser that looked like a cookie. All the children reported the object looking like a cookie. However when told it was actually an eraser, children aged three stated that it looked like an eraser, ignoring the cookie-like appearance. This led Taylor and Hort to conclude that these children could not mentally represent the eraser as being both an eraser and looking like a cookie. Thus supporting the claim in question. Alternatively Piaget (1929) claimed that children are not able to differentiate reality from mental events until seven or eight years. Wellman (2002) however disagreed with Piaget and O’Neil and Gopnik’s results, claiming children as young as three can distinguish between real and pretend actions.

As well as executive functions, the development of language has been found to have an influential effect on ToM development. Piaget argued that a child’s ability to verbalise one’s own and other’s behaviour is fundamental to the development of ToM. It is not until the third or fourth year of life that a child is able to present mental representations through language, and therefore able to demonstrate ToM. (Gelletly, 1997). In contrast many psychologists argue that at around the age of two years a child is able to verbalise that their own desires and feelings differ from that of others, providing evidence for an earlier age of ToM development than four years, however it is not until at least three years of age a child can employ terms such as think and know as well as desire, (Bartsch and Wellman, 1995).

One major method to investigate ToM is through tests of false belief. False belief is a child’s ability to separate their beliefs from those of another person who has false knowledge of a situation. Correctly exhibiting false belief is fundamental to ToM. There is a vast amount of evidence showing that children under the age of four often fail to exhibit false belief, thus providing evidence to support the claim that ToM does not develop until four year of age. Moses and Flavell (1990), showed three year old children a video in which ‘Cathy’ found crayons in a bag and then left the room. A clown then came in, removed the crayons and filled it with rocks. The child was then asked “what will Cathy expect to find in the bag?” Most three year olds incorrectly answered; “rocks” thus lacking ToM, however four and five year olds did not have trouble with this concept and answered correctly, (Flavell, 1993). Other evidence that children under the age of four fail false belief tests have come from Gopnik and Wellman (1994), Perner, (1991), Tager-Flushberg (2005), Wellman (in press) and Heinz et al (1983). Flavell et al (1995) argued that one possibility for these results is that children under four have an early idea about thinking and knowing but lack a well founded understanding of the source of these beliefs, leading to mistaken identification of true versus false beliefs. Dunn et al (1988, 1991) again support the claim that ToM does not develop until four years of age, claiming that children under this age will most likely fail false belief tests. It has also been claimed that neural connections play an important role in correctly identifying false belief and children under the age of four fail these tests due to immature neural connectivity, (Kobayashi et al, 2007; Saxe and Wexler, 2005; Herwig et al, 2007 and Mueller et al, 2007). In spite of the substantial experimental evidence that suggests that children under four fail false belief tests, there is evidence supporting an opposing argument. Onishi and Baillargeon (2005), Southgate et al (2007) and Song et al (2008) have found that children under four can attribute false belief about an objects location, indicating ToM development before the proposed four years of age. Song and Baillargeon (2008) found that children under four were able to identify false perceptions of an object, again indicating development of ToM before four years. Results from False Belief tests have provided evidence that both support the claim in question as well as questioning the claim.

It has been shown that there are vast amounts of theoretical and experimental evidence that suggests theory theory, TOMM, executive functions, language and false beliefs all play a role in the development of ToM. Many psychologist have provided evidence that ToM is not apparent until the age of four. On the other hand many psychologist have provided evidence that ToM is apparent before four years of age. . In conclusion there is no leading argument and both sides of the debate are heavily supported with experimental and theoretical evidence. Therefore no exact, valid conclusion can be made to establish at what age ToM develops.

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