Sunday, October 21, 2012

Theory of Mind, Language, and Conversation

When I am teaching others about speech and language, I sometimes reference theory of mind. Although this is not a term that many people throw around in everyday conversation (with the exception of us crazy SLPs, of course), all effective communicators draw upon their theory of mind skills frequently and without even knowing they are doing so. Without well developed theory of mind skills, our conversations would be disjointed or repetitive- we would risk insulting our audience or boring them to death with way too many details.

Simply put, Theory of Mind is the ability to understand the mental state of others. In other words, it is the ability to put yourself in the mind of another person- to have a theory about their state of mind.

Check out the video below. In addition to revealing how cute this little girl is and how cool her mom must be (okay, full disclosure: it's my daughter), it also helps us demonstrate the idea of theory of mind.

So. Given the question, "Where will Sally look for her money?" what would you answer? If you have well developed theory of mind, you should answer "Sally will look under the yellow cup" because you understand that Sally hasn't seen that sneaky sneaky Ann move her money.  Even though you know that the money is under the pink cup, you also know that Sally doesn't know this because she didn't see the money being moved.  You understand Sally's mental state which, in this case, includes a false belief. 

This classic "Sally Ann" test of false belief is generally failed by children under the age of four.  I had secretly hoped my 3-year-old daughter would amaze me and pass the test, but she was highly predictable and failed--just like she should.  The ability to pass a test of false belief generally develops between the ages of four and five; at this point, understanding of false belief seems to correlate strongly with and even predict an individual's ability to communicate effectively with others (Resches and Perez Pereira, 2007). 

Theory of mind is needed for effective communication because we all need to carefully select what we say for our listeners.  The concept of presupposition, or the ability of a speaker to make assumptions about a listener's background knowledge and modify his language accordingly, is closely linked to the idea of theory of mind.   

As just one example, pretend you are going to tell a story about something that happened to you during the day. Your story involves the following: you went to the doctor, discussed something troublesome with him, and found out that you had no need to be concerned at all.  Prior to leaving for your appointment, you had shared all your concerns with your husband; he is now is waiting anxiously for the information you get from your doctor.  The moment you get out of the doctor's office, you call your husband and blurt out, "It's fine! There's no need to worry at all!"  You can do this, because you know what your husband already knows about the situation. You know he's waiting on the edge of his seat, and you presume (or presuppose, if you will) that he will know exactly what you are talking about when you call him- and he probably will.  Should you want to share this news with your coworker who has no knowledge of your day, however, you can't just walk into her office and blurt out, "It's fine! There's no reason to worry at all!"  (unless you'd like to risk seeming a bit, well, odd). You need to provide her with some introduction to the topic at hand before sharing your wonderful news.  

We all modify our language all the time, depending who we are talking to, what information they already have, what their ability to understand us might be (e.g., we use more simple language when talking with preschoolers than with adults), and even what their status is (we are typically much more formal in the way we speak to our bosses than we are with our close friends).  We empathize, we apologize, we try to understand the perspective of others.   Each of these pragmatic language and social-emotional skills requires us to draw on our theory of mind skills to make assumptions about a listener's state of mind and modify our behavior accordingly. And the more effective we are in doing so, the better we are at communicating with others. 

Children and adults with language disorders, and those with autism, can especially struggle with theory of mind.  Teaching them to understand the perspectives of others can be a huge part of teaching them to be successful communicators. In addition, addressing theory of mind skills can be an important part of helping any child succeed at interacting well with others. 

How to address theory of mind? First of all, remember that theory of  mind is thought to be a cognitive skill that develops over time. There are certain things that we simply can't expect young children to do. Here's some of what we know about how theory of mind develops
  • Children as young as 9-12 months begin showing objects and pointing to interesting objects simply for the sake of getting another person to look at the object. Although these attempts to obtain joint attention aren't the same as theory of mind, they are thought to be a significant building block toward it. That's why lack of  joint attention is such an red important flag for autism.
  • By 18-24 months old, children begin to understand and talk about their own emotions (Owens, 2012).
  •  At 2-3 years old, children accurately label basic emotions they see in pictures
    (Michalson, L. & Lewis, M., 1985).
  • Around 3-4 years old, children start demonstrating pretend play in which they take on the roles of others (Nicolopoulou & Richer, 2007).
  • At 4-years old, many children will pass a false-belief task like the Sally Ann task describe above; this indicates they are starting to understand that others can hold beliefs that are different from reality
  • 4 -year olds also start to talk about the mental states or internal reactions of characters in stories they tell (Nicolopoulou & Richner, 2007).
  • By 4 years old, children begin to use words that represent internal states, such as know, forget think, and remember (Owens, 2012).
  • By 5 years old, children can accurately identify many of the emotions people might have in specific situations (Michalson, L. & Lewis, M., 1985)
It's important to ensure we know what to expect at certain ages, so that we don't require our children to do something that is just not possible. Having said that, here are some things we can do to promote theory of mind in young children:
  • Engage children in pretend play where they take on the roles (and perspectives) of others
  • Use verbs like think and remember and hope and believe when we talk about our own thoughts
  • Play games and discuss situations where children get to predict the outcome of an event and then compare their predictions to what actually happens ("I thought it was going to be dad at the door, but it was grandma!")
  • Help children to recognize, describe, and manage their own emotions
  • Help children to understand the emotions of others and what things lead to those emotions
  • Engage children in "barrier" activities, where they have to describe a task to someone without being able to demonstrate it. My grandma's version of a barrier activity was the "funny monster game," which involved:a. Me drawing a monster without her seeing it, b. Me telling her how to draw the monster without showing it to her, and c. Us comparing our pictures, which were invariably different (in a funny, funny way!). As an SLP, I use these activities all the time to teach children to use precise language that takes their listener's perspective into account.
  • Discuss the internal reactions, thoughts, and emotions of characters as you read books with your little one.
  • Explicitly teach your little one that others have different thoughts from them. Practice predicting what another person might be thinking and why they might be thinking this.
  • As always, talk, talk talk with your little one- the more language he has, the more he will use it effectively in a wide variety of ways. 

Michalson, L. & Lewis, M. (1985). What do children know about emotions and when do they know it.  In M. Lewis & C. Saarni (Eds). The socialization of emotions. New York: Plenum.

Nicolopoulou & Richer (2007). From actors to agents to persons: The development of character representation in young children's narratives.  Child Development, 78, 412-429

Owens (2012). Language Development: An Introduction: 8th Edition. Pearson Education Inc. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.  

Resches & Perez Pereira (2007).  Referential communication abilities and Theory of Mind development in preschool children.  Journal of Child Language, 23, 219-239.


  1. Thanks, I enjoyed learning about that!

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