Psychology Theory of Mind
Claire Hughes, Rory T. Devine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0121


Although research into children’s awareness of mental states (such as beliefs, desires, and intentions) dates back to Piaget’s early work on childhood egocentrism, a key catalyst in this field was Premack and Woodruff’s 1978 study of trained chimpanzees’ apparent ability to engage in deceptive behavior, which led to the coining of the term “theory of mind”. This work attracted the attention of philosophers of mind such as Dennett who argued that the hallmark of mental states (such as belief) is they are representational (i.e., fallible) in nature, such that demonstrating the ability to explain or predict the behavior of an agent with a false belief would be compelling evidence for crediting a child with a theory of mind—and hence the now-classic false-belief task was born. Since the late 1970s, children’s emerging understanding of mind has attracted the attention of researchers in many different disciplines, from comparative psychology to cognitive neuroscience and education. In the 1980s, researchers focused on explaining developmental milestones in the preschool years, positioning themselves within three different theoretical camps: nativists, who argued (largely from evidence of delayed false-belief understanding in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders [ASD—a highly heritable developmental disorder characterized by impairments in communication, socialization, and restricted repetitive behaviors]) that an innate and dedicated cognitive system came “online” as a result of biological maturation; theory-theorists, for whom children’s interactions with their social environments enabled them to become “little psychologists” (a view that explicitly echoes the Piagetian metaphor of children as “little scientists”); and simulation-theorists, who emphasized the importance of pretend play and children’s ability to imagine themselves in others’ shoes. The 1990s saw a theoretical rapprochement and the emergence of hybrid accounts, coupled with a recognition of striking individual differences in children’s understanding of mind and their association with variation in other cognitive domains (such as language ability or Executive Function) and in diverse aspects of children’s social worlds (e.g., number of siblings, family talk about mental states). Since the 2000s, research has grown in several different directions, including: imaging studies of the neural bases for theory of mind; new paradigms for testing infants, older children, adolescents, and adults; and a burgeoning interest in cultural influences on children’s acquisition of a theory of mind. Remarkably, given the widespread assumption that theory of mind is fundamental to human social interaction, rather little is known about the mechanisms linking theory of mind to children’s everyday social competence. Indeed, research into the practical implications of theory of mind and possible interventions to promote theory-of-mind competence is still in its infancy, but likely to grow considerably in the early 21st century.

General Overviews

Useful introductory books to this field of research include: Baron-Cohen 1995, which sets out the theory-of-mind account of Autism Spectrum Disorder; the edited Repacholi and Slaughter 2003 volume on individual differences in theory of mind; Carpendale and Lewis 2006 on the social origins of children’s understanding of mind; Apperly 2011, which explores the cognitive basis of theory of mind; and Hughes 2011, which presents findings from a detailed longitudinal study of children followed from toddlerhood to the transition to school.

  • Apperly, I. 2011. Mindreaders: The cognitive basis of “theory of mind.” Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

    Apperly’s book provides both an integrative comprehensive overview of existing research on theory of mind in children, nonhuman primates, and adults and introduces a novel two-systems theory of theory of mind.

  • Baron-Cohen, S. 1995. Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Learning, Development, and Conceptual Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Baron-Cohen’s book gives a definitive exposition on the theory of mind account of Autism Spectrum Disorders. In doing so, he articulates a modular theory of theory of mind development.

  • Carpendale, J., and C. Lewis. 2006. How children develop social understanding. Understanding Children’s Worlds. Oxford: Blackwell.

    In this book, the authors provide a thorough and critical review of research on theory of mind in childhood and propose a developmental theory focused on the social origins of theory of mind.

  • Hughes, C. 2011. Social understanding and social lives: From toddlerhood through to the transition to school. Essays in Developmental Psychology. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

    The author places individual differences in theory of mind center stage and relates them to both cognitive skills and social experiences.

  • Repacholi, B., and V. Slaughter, eds. 2003. Individual differences in theory of mind: Implications for typical and atypical development. Macquarie Monographs in Cognitive Science. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

    This edited volume was the first collection to specifically focus on normative individual differences in theory of mind and extend the focus of theory-of-mind research beyond the preschool years.

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