Theory of Mind in Psychology: People Thinking

Key Takeaways

  • Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states to ourselves and others, serving as one of the foundational elements for social interaction.
  • Having a theory of mind is important as it provides the ability to predict and interpret the behavior of others.
  • During infancy and early childhood, children learn the early skills that they’ll need to develop their theory of mind later on, such as paying attention to people and copying them.
  • The traditional test for theory of mind is a false-belief task, used to assess a child’s understanding that other people can have beliefs about the world which contrast with reality.
  • Countless empirical studies reveal that this ability develops in toddlers as young as 15 months old and deteriorates with age. Research also demonstrates this ability in some of our closest relatives: apes.
  • Some individuals with autism, Asperger’s, schizophrenia, depression, or social anxiety disorder exhibit a deficit in theory of mind and perform poorly on related tasks.

What is Theory of Mind?

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, and knowledge — to ourselves and others.

“As humans we assume that others want, think, believe and the like, and thereby infer states that are not directly observable, using these states anticipatorily, to predict the behavior of others as well as our own. These inferences, which amount to a theory of mind, are to our knowledge, universal in human adults” (Premack & Woodruff, 1978).

Having a theory of mind allows us to understand that others have unique beliefs and desires that are different from our own, enabling us to engage in daily social interaction as we interpret the mental states and infer the behaviors of those around us (Premack & Woodruff, 1978).

After its first identification in 1978, a large body of research in this field has accumulated, studying the developmental pathway, neural basis, and deficits of the theory of mind.

How Does ToM Develop?

We aren’t born immediately knowing that others have unique beliefs and desires that are unique from our own. It turns out that there are several developmental precursors (or skills) that infants need to develop their theory of mind later on Westby & Robinson, 2014).

These skills include the ability to comprehend the concept of attention, understand the intentions of others, and the ability to imitate others are all rungs on the ladder you must climb before reaching the platform of theory of mind.

Other developmental precursors necessary of theory of mind to develop include (i) pretending to be someone else (like a doctor or a cashier); (ii) understanding the causes and consequences of emotions; and (iii) understanding ther people and have different likes/dislikes.

Paying Attention to Other People

According to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, attention is one of the first underlying precursors to the development of a fully-fledged theory of mind.

This involves recognizing that seeing is not merely looking, but rather we can selectively direct our attention to specific objects and people (Baron-Cohen, 1991). A key example of this attention is joint attention.

Joint attention occurs when two people direct their attention towards the same thing of interest – often doing via pointing so as to direct another’s attention to the same source.

When infants understand this gesture, they are simultaneously processing another person’s mental state, recognizing that this object is something that another person thinks is of interest (Baron-Cohen, 1991), thus illustrating the beginning phases of the theory of mind.

Intentionality (knowing that people act according to the things they want)

A second core component that contributes to the development of the theory of mind is that of intentionality, or the understanding that others’ actions are goal-directed and arise out of unique beliefs and desires, as defined by philosopher Daniel Dennett (1983).

Toddlers as young as 2 years old exhibit an understanding of intentionality (Luchkina et al., 2018) as do chimpanzees and orangutans (Call & Tomasello, 1998).

To understand that people act in a way that is motivated by their desires (for example, I am hungry so I will reach for that apple) is to understand that other people have their own desires (she must be hungry), thus demonstrating a theory of mind, or attributing mental states to others.

Imitation (Copying Other People)

Imitating others is a third building block of theory of mind. The ability to imitate others is to recognize recognizing that others have their own beliefs and desires.

For example, bridging attention and intentionality, imitation can result when a child realizes that others direct their attention (to an object, etc.) and do so intentionally (motivated by goal-directed behavior).

Internalizing these two concepts, the child then engages in imitation and may direct his or her eyes towards that specific object or scene.

However, there is some pushback that imitation is not as much of a crucial precursor for theory of mind. A 2000 longitudinal study found that the infants’ imitation scores were not associated with later theory of mind ability (Charman, 2000).

Stages of Theory of Mind

Between ages 4-5, children really start to think about others’ thoughts and feelings, and this is when true theory of mind emerges. The actual development of the theory of mind generally follows an agreed-upon sequence of steps (Wellman, 2004; Wellman & Peterson, 2012):

Tasks Listed From Easiest to Most Difficult

  • Understanding “wanting” : The first step is the realization that others have diverse desires, and to get what they want, people act in different ways.
  • Understanding “thinking” : The second step is the runderstanding that others also have diverse beliefs about the same thing, and that people’s actions are based on what they think is going to happen.
  • Understanding that “seeing leads to knowing” : The third stage is recognizing that others have different knowledge access, and if someone hasn’t seen something, they will need extra information to understand.
  • Understanding “false-beliefs” : The forth stage is being aware of the fact that others may have false-beliefs that differ from reality.
  • Understanding “hidden feelings” : The final stage is being aware that other people can hide their emotions, and can feel a different emotion from the one they display.

Cultural Differences

While these developmental stages seem to be universal across demographic groups in laying the groundwork for the formation of theory of mind, different cultures place varying levels of emphasis on each of the five skills, causing some to be developed later than others.

In other words, cultural importance plays a role in determining the specific order in which these five milestones are cemented into the mind of a toddler.

That is, those that are more valued tend to be developed before those that are less so (and this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, too).

For example, in individualistic cultures, such as the U.S., a greater emphasis is placed on the ability to recognize that others have different opinions and beliefs. However, in more collectivistic cultures such as China, this skill is not as valued and as a result might not develop until later (Shahaeian, 2011).

A study conducted by developmental psychologist Ameneh Shahaeian and colleagues found that for Iranian children, knowledge access was understood earlier than diverse beliefs, aligning with this collectivist culture’s emphasis on filial respect and knowledge acquisition (Shahaeian, 2011).

Whereas with Australian participants, who come from a more individualist culture, knowledge access was understood after comprehending that others have diverse beliefs.

Notably, the researchers found that there was no significant cross-cultural difference in overall rates of theory of mind mastery (Shahaeian, 2011), indicating that individuals of all cultures are able to master this skill (Callaghan et al., 2005) despite following different developmental pathways to do so.

False-Belief Tasks

Most theory of mind studies are conducted with toddlers and infants. Because this is a developmental concept, researchers are concerned with the age at which individuals adopt a theory of mind.

Most studies that measure theory of mind rely on a false-belief task.

The traditional test for theory of mind is a false-belief task. A false-belief task is commonly used in child development research to assess a child’s understanding that other people can have beliefs about the world which are not true.

The false-belief task allows researchers to distinguish unambiguously between the child’s (true) belief and the child’s awareness of someone else’s different (false) belief (Dennett, 1978).

First-order false-belief tasks assess the realization that it is possible to hold false-beliefs about real events in the world. An example of a commonly used first-order false-belief task is the “Unexpected contents”, or “Smarties” task.

Experimenters ask children to predict another child’s perception about the contents of a box that looks as though it holds a candy called “Smarties” (that actually includes a pencil) (Gopnik & Astington, 1988).

First-order false-belief tasks involve attribution about other’s false-belief with regard to real events.

First-order false-belief smarties task

In second-order false-belief tasks, the child is required to determine what one character in a pictured scenario thinks regarding another character’s beliefs (Baron-Cohen, 1995).

Thus, can a child understand that another person’s belief about a situation can be different from their own, and also from reality.

For example, a character leaves an object in one location and while he or she is outside the room the object is transferred to a new location.

Passing this task demonstrates the realization that it is possible to hold a false-belief about someone else’s belief.

A commonly used second-order false-belief task is the Sally-Anne task, in which a character leaves an object in one location, and while he or she is outside the room the object is transferred to a new location.

The Sally-Anne Task

Simon Baron-Cohen (1985) used the Sally–Anne task to investigate whether autistic children could understand false-belief.

The child who is being tested sits at a table on which two dolls (Anne and Sally) are positioned facing lidded containers (a box and a basket). The experimenter enacts a scenario with the dolls.

In this task, Sally first places a marble into her basket and then leaves the scene. Anne then enters, takes the marble out of the basket, and places it into a closed box. The experimenter then asks the participant where Sally will look for the marble.

sally-anne false-belief task

Three groups of children were tested (one at a time) – 20 children with autism (experimental group), 14 children with Down’s syndrome (control group 1), and 27 typically developing children (control group 2).

If the child passes, he or she will point to the basket, understanding that, although this is no longer reality (as the marble is now in the basket), Sally possesses a false-belief that the marble is in the basket because she did not watch Anne move it (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985).

To point to the basket is to understand that Sally has her own set of beliefs about the world that differ from the child’s (he or she knows where the marble actually is).


  • 85% of the typically developing children and 86% of the children with Down’s syndrome answered the false-belief question correctly.
  • 80% of the autistic children fail the false-belief question.

Several studies indicate that children around four or five years of age are able to pass this false-belief task (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985; Gopnik & Astington, 1988; Nelson et al., 2008; Sung & Hsu, 2014).

However, other studies indicate otherwise – that toddlers as young as 15 months old have some understand of a theory of mind. A nonverbal version of the false belief task is employed for babies of this age, with their looking time serving as the dependent variable.

In other words, following the traditional false belief task in which a toy or object is hidden, instead of verbally asking the participant where Sally would look, she would come back and either look in the basket or box, and experimenters would measure the duration that participants looked at Sally performing this action.

If the toddlers looked longer when Sally reached for the box, this would indicate that they expected Sally to look in the basket.

And the results demonstrated this, revealing that, even from a very young age, children do have some understanding of the mental states of others (Onishi & Baillargeon, 2005; replicated by Träuble et al., 2010).

Problems With ToM

Theory of mind is an important underlying mechanism that allows for human social interaction to occur. Without it, we would greatly struggle to communicate with each other, understand each other’s behavior, and we wouldn’t be known as the unique social beings that make us so special.

Theory of mind problems can have a range of serious complications.


Although research demonstrates that humans have the capacity to understand theory of mind, some have a better ability to do so than others.

Children who are diagnosed with autism, a spectrum disorder marked by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, and nonverbal communication (Speaks, 2011), exhibit a deficit in theory of mind capabilities.

Eighty percent of participants with autism failed a false belief task in an initial study conducted by Simon Baron-Cohen (1985).

And while more recent studies support this claim, they also reveal that children with autism can pass false belief tasks when explicitly asked to do so, as opposed to five-year-old children who can do so automatically.

The difference, however, is that outside of the lab setting, individuals with autism cannot do not show spontaneous false belief attribution (Senju, 2012). On the neurological side, children and adults with autism also show less activation in brain regions, such as the mPFC and TPJ, that are associated with theory of mind (Castelli et al., 2002).


For individuals with Asperger’s, a disorder marked by similar, though less severe symptoms than in ASD, also exhibit a lessened ability to express theory of mind, illustrated by their impaired performance on various theory of mind-related tasks (Happe et al., 1996; Spek et al., 2010)


Some people with schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by a loss of touch with reality, also struggle with theory of mind.

A 2007 meta-analysis (an analysis that combines the results of multiple empirical studies) reveals a stable deficit of theory of mind in people with schizophrenia, as evidenced by their consistent, poor performance on false belief tasks (Sprong et al., 2007).

And similar to individuals with autism and Asperger’s, schizophrenic people have reduced recruitment of the mPFC during false belief tasks (Dodell-Feder, 2014).

Depression and Anxiety

Likewise, individuals with depression struggle with theory of mind and experience deficits in integrating contextual informational about other people (Wolkenstein et al., 2011) as well as deficits in theory of mind decoding (Lee et al., 2005).

A 2008 study revealed that both nonpsychotic and psychotic depressed individuals were significantly impaired on tasks involving theory of mind social-perceptual and social-cognitive components (Wang et al., 2008).

Similarly, people with social anxiety disorder, which is marked by interpersonal impairment, are also significantly less accurate at decoding mental states than control groups (Washburn et al., 2016)

Together, these examples illustrate that, while humans do have a unique ability to detect mental states in others, for some, this ability is reduced or not present at all, thus making social interacting challenging and all the more stressful.

ToM in The Brain

Like all psychological concepts, our brain is activated when we rely on theory of mind. Countless neuroimaging studies have helped pinpoint the specific regions that are activated when we engage in theory of mind tasks, identifying a few key areas of our brain.

Administering false belief tasks while simultaneously scanning the brain and pinpointing which regions are active has led researchers to identify the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), among a few other regions, as the main structures that are responsible for theory of mind.

To determine this, researchers have conducted various experimental designs.

A common paradigm relies on a false belief story and false photograph story. As discussed, a false belief test would involve a story similar to that of Sally and Anne, followed by asking the participant a question such as “Does Sally expect to find her doll in the basket or box?”

An example of the control condition, referred to as the false photograph story, is “A photograph was taken of an apple hanging on a tree branch. The film took half an hour to develop. In the meantime, a strong wind blew the apple to the ground,” followed by asking the participant “Does this developed photograph show an apple on the ground or branch” (Callejas et al., 2011).

Here, there is no inference about another’s mental state, but rather about the state of the apple in the photograph. Studies that utilize this method illustrate that the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is active during the false belief story, but not in the brains of participants who are part of the control group (Saxe & Kanwisher, 2003; Saxe & Powell, 2006; Saxe, Schultz, & Jiang, 2006).

Additionally, when participants are asked to read stories that describe the thoughts and beliefs of a protagonist as opposed to a story that merely describes the protagonist’s physical characteristics, the TPJ activates in the former condition (Saxe & Powell, 2006). These findings have allowed researchers to conclude that the TPJ, located where the temporal and parietal lobes meet.

Research studies also examine the role other brain regions play in theory of mind. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), the area that covers part of the frontal lobe, is responsible for predicting behavioral and emotional consequences of mental states (Aichhorn et al., 2006).

And other studies reveal the role of the precuneus and amygdala (Gallagher & Frith, 2003; Stone, 2000), namely in patients with left amygdala damage (Fine et al., 2001). There are multiple regions responsible for the development of theory of mind, but what about in


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

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Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

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