Psychology Advanced Theory of Mind
Scott A. Miller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0322


The term theory of mind refers to beliefs about the mental world—to what people know or believe about beliefs, desires, emotions, and other mental states. Many basic forms of such understanding emerge early in development, and these early achievements have long been the most common focus of research on theory of mind. Development of theory of mind, however, is by no means complete by age five or six; rather, recent research documents a number of further developments that build on and extend the early forms of understanding. These further developments include understanding of second-order false belief (John thinks that Mary thinks . . . .), the capacity for higher-order recursive thinking (A thinks that B thinks that C thinks . . . .), understanding of interpretive diversity (two people may hold different beliefs about the same aspect of reality), understanding of opacity (the truth of some utterances depends on the utterance and not on the reality), the ability to interpret nonliteral utterances (e.g., lies, jokes, irony, sarcasm), and the ability to perceive the true emotion in instances of hidden or multiple emotions. Mastery of such knowledge typically extends across late childhood and adolescence, and, in some instances, even adults fall short of ceiling in their performance. Individual differences in understanding are, therefore, considerably more marked than is true in early childhood, and such differences have been shown to contribute to a number of other developments in both the cognitive and the social domains. This point holds true for typically occurring development, and it is often especially the case in clinical syndromes, most notably autism spectrum disorder or ASD. Theory of mind, including advanced theory of mind, is therefore of considerable pragmatic importance. Theory of mind also presents a number of important theoretical challenges, challenges that relate to central issues in developmental psychology. What is the nature of the underlying cognitive system that makes advanced theory-of-mind mastery possible? How does this system differ from the forms of knowledge available to the young child? And what are processes by which the initial system transforms into the advanced one? The sections to come will address these and other issues in the study of advanced theory of mind. In most instances the answers offered will be partial ones, and, therefore, needed directions for future research will be a continuing theme.


From its inception, the study of theory of mind has been directed to early emerging developments and to young children, typically no older than age five or six. Understandably, most books written to summarize this work also concentrate on the early years. Many outstanding books exist, including some by authors who rank among the leading researchers in the field: Apperly 2011, Carpendale and Lewis 2021, Hughes 2011, and Wellman 2014. Although each of these books offers some intriguing ideas about advanced theory of mind, the bulk of the discussion remains on early developments, something that is also true of the numerous handbook chapters that summarize research on theory of mind (e.g., Carpendale and Lewis 2015, Hughes and Devine 2015). In recent years, however, books devoted to advanced forms of theory of mind have begun to appear, a clear reflection of the fact that research on advanced developments has expanded greatly in the last dozen or so years. The first of these books is Miller 2012, and it has been recently joined by Miller 2022, another, more comprehensive work by the same author. Another recent and quite detailed treatment is provided by Devine and Lecce 2021, edited by important contributors to the research literature. Finally, Bosacki 2016 is a valuable source with respect to one of the major issues in the study of theory of mind: How do theory-of-mind abilities affect other aspects of development and behavior?

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

    Among other strengths, two aspects of this book make it an especially valuable source. One is the author’s expertise in the relevant neurological research literature. The other is its grounding in work on adult cognition and the links that the author draws between this work and the development and the application of theory of mind.

  • Bosacki, S. L. 2016. Social cognition in middle childhood and adolescence. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

    The consequences of theory of mind for other aspects of development have long been a central topic in the study of theory of mind. Most research has concentrated on developments that emerge in the first four or five years of life. This book provides a rare and valuable discussion of relations with measures of advanced theory of mind.

  • Carpendale, J., and C. Lewis. 2015. The development of social understanding. In Handbook of child psychology and developmental science. Vol. 2, Cognitive processes. 7th ed. Edited by L. S. Liben and U. Muller, 381–424. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    Chapters in the Handbook of Child Psychology have long been a major resource for those interested in children’s development. The Carpendale and Lewis contribution is one of two chapters to discuss theory of mind in the 2015 edition.

  • Carpendale, J., and C. Lewis. 2021. What makes us human: How minds develop through social interactions. New York: Routledge.

    The authors of this book are among the major contributors to the sociocultural approach to theory of mind, an approach that has grown in prominence over the years. In addition to providing an up-to-date review of relevant research, this book offers one of the best summaries of the sociocultural perspective.

  • Devine, R. T., and S. Lecce, eds. 2021. Theory of mind in middle childhood and adolescence. New York: Routledge.

    This edited book presents eleven chapters, all written by leading researchers and directed to various aspects of advanced theory of mind. Although not all topics of interest receive attention, the book provides both expert and up-to-date discussions of the topics selected for review.

  • Hughes, C. 2011. Social understanding and social lives. Clifton, NJ: Psychology Press.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203813225

    Among other strengths, this book summarizes the research program of one of the field’s most influential researchers. As its title suggests, the focus is on the social world as both a cause and an effect of theory of mind.

  • Hughes, C., and R. T. Devine. 2015. A social perspective on theory of mind. In Handbook of child psychology and developmental science. Vol. 3, Socioemotional processes. 7th ed. Edited by M. E. Lamb, 564–609. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    This chapter offers a complement to Carpendale and Lewis 2015. It provides extended discussions of both the origins and the consequences of theory of mind.

  • Miller, S. A. 2012. Theory of mind: Beyond the preschool years. New York: Psychology Press.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203122730

    This title provides the first book-length treatment of advanced theory of mind. It also draws relations between theory of mind and earlier approaches to the study of mentalistic and social understanding (e.g., Piagetian theory, person perception, attributions). It is the only extended discussion to do so.

  • Miller, S. A. 2022. Advanced theory of mind. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780197573174.001.0001

    Like Devine and Lecce 2021, this book provides a wide-ranging and up-to-date coverage of advanced theory of mind. The selection of topics is somewhat fuller than that in Devine and Lecce 2021, and the coverage extends throughout the lifespan rather than ending at adolescence.

  • Wellman, H. M. 2014. Making minds: How theory of mind develops. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199334919.001.0001

    The author of this book is not only a skilled expositor of work on theory of mind; he has long been one of the major theorists and researchers of the topic. This book provides an expert discussion of one of the major theories of theory of mind, the so-called theory theory position, as well as an expert’s review of the main research literature.

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