Young Children and Theory of Mind (with in citation)

*The following content is useful for undergrads who enroll in developmental psychology modules. Referencing style using APA format.

I remember when I was 3 years old, my mother always made my brother and I saved our allowance. My brother at that time was 5 years old. One day, he came up with an ingenious plan to combine both our money, so that the amount would double. Indeed, I agreed. Then, my brother started to buy toys using our money. And little did I know the total money he used exceeded his share of money in our piggy bank. I stopped sharing piggy bank with my brother when I reached my fourth birthday. Why did it take me one year to understand my brother’s implicit desire? How did my brother managed to generate such ingenious plan?

All of us were once a little kid with an egocentric at heart. Egocentric refers to those who belief that others perceive what they are perceiving, think what they are thinking and desire what they desired and actually think that the world revolve around them. Piaget (1951) and Piaget & Cook (1952) proposed that children in the pre-operational stage, where the age varies from 2 to 7 years old, engaged in thinking and communication that are usually egocentric.

Piaget concept of egocentric later became the outset of many renowned researches on theory of mind (e.g.: Wimmer and Perner, 1983; Perner, Leekam and Wimmer, 1987; Onishi and Baillargeon, 2005). Theory of mind refers to the understanding that other people’s state of mind :- belief, desire, goal and understanding may differ from our own belief, desire, goal and understanding. People’s minds are unique. Understanding of other people minds and thought can be considered as an asset of survival. However, younger children rarely show any understanding on theory of mind. So, what definite age does theory of mind arises?

Most researches done on investigating theory of mind focused on children understanding of false belief task (e.g.: Wimmer and Perner, 1983; Perner, Leekam and Wimmer, 1987). A false belief task would test one mental state understanding in which the participants have to realize that sometimes people do not act on reality but people act on what they belief reality to be (Wellman, Cross and Watson, 2001). Children understanding that a person has a false belief ; one whose belief contradicts reality, proved that children appreciate the distinction between other’s mind belief and their overt action in real world, thus, provided evidences that children understand that other people have unique minds.

A classic false belief task by Wimmer and Perner (1983) found that children age 5 years old and above consistently passed the false belief task. However, younger children aged 4 years old and below systematically erred. Children aged 4 years old and below did not put Maxi’s (paper cut-out puppet) belief into consideration, thus, failed to recognize the protagonist false belief. Wimmer and Perner (1983) concluded that children age 5 years old and above have acquired a fundamental insight into their mind and other’s mind. In consequence, they are able to predict behavior according to observation and assessment on belief of others.

Later on, Perner, Leekam and Wimmer (1987) developed the deceptive box task, to test false belief after the previous study (e.g.: Wimmer and Perner, 1983) which was critiqued for using artificial people because puppets do not have minds. In the deceptive box task, children were first asked the content of a Smarties box and they would answer “Smarties” (Perner, Leekam and Wimmer, 1987). Afterwards, the actual content of the Smarties box which was a pencil was shown to the children. The children were then asked what would their friend (eg: Susan) answered if she was asked about the content of a Smarties box before the actual content was shown to her. Perner, Leekam and Wimmer (1987) found that older children above 4 years old answered “Smarties” despite knowing the actual content of the Smarties box. Younger children, in contrast tend to answer according to their own knowledge on the actual content and belied the false belief of others.

The previous finding was supported by Gopnik & Astington (1988) and Wimmer & Hartl (1991). They proposed that children undergo a radical conceptual shift regarding theory of mind at 4 years of age (Gopnik & Astington ,1988 ;Wimmer & Hartl , 1991). This group of people is called the Scoffers. Scoffers believed that developmental of human life span contained the ‘mind-blind’ period, where this period typically occupied the first 3 to 4 years of child life (Chandler & Birch, 2010).

Then a breakthrough of adult insight begins. Subsequently, representational theory of mind emerged and slowly gets better proportional to life experiences. The boosters, per contra, proposed that children have acquired theory of mind at early age (e.g: Lewis and Osborne, 1990; Siegal and Beattli, 1991; Chandler, Fritz and Hala, 1989). However, their competence could not be demonstrated because of task assessment strategy (Lewis and Osborne, 1990; Siegal and beattie, 1991).

The boosters claimed that younger children had the competency required to solve false belief task, however, they lack other cognitive skills. Perhaps younger children were underestimated for not being able to perform during false belief task? There is a chance that they understood the concept of unique minds but they lack the skills required to complete the task. Lewis & Osborne (1990) and Siegal & Beattie (1991) suggested that younger children may misunderstand the questions and the story line as their linguistic efficiency is novice. Both studies reported better performance of children younger than age 4 years old after simply simplifying the story line and paraphrasing the questions. Children aged 3 years old stood better chance of giving correct response (Lewis & Osborne, 1990; Siegal & Beattie, 1991).

It is possible that lack of developing skills in cognitive areas such as language relates to children’s fruitless attempt on false belief task. It seems that having an understanding of others mind and using that understanding is not the same. Competency may not be defined in term of successful performance as performance limitation masked children’s competence. ( Keysar, Barr, Balin & Bravaer, 2000).

At this point, the only way to compare whether theory of mind evolves gradually or radically is to improve the false belief task, so that it comprehend younger children competency if there is one. Many believe that children were underestimated by standard lab false belief test (Chandler, Fritz and Hala, 1989). Evidence began to emerge that younger children understand theory of mind; however because of their lack in verbal potential, they failed to reveal their understanding during false belief task. Thus, using other method, Onishi, Baillargeon and Leslie (2007) tested younger children’s competency using a false belief task that do not rely on understanding of stories or verbal messages and do not require any explicit response.

A violation of expectation pretense task was conducted on 15 month old infants. Looking time was measured during the task paradigm. Onishi et al. (2007) hypothesized that looking time would increase if 15 month old infants are able to detect a violation in the consistency of event sequence that involves feigning. An example of the task was infants detected a violation of consistency when an actor poured liquid into one cup but pretended to drink from another (Onishi et al, 2007). Thus, Onishi et al., (2007) concluded young children developed theory of mind at the age where children began to engage in pretend play and are able to detect the violation of expected event. In conjunction to the detection of violation, infants understood the state of mind of the actor, therein show interest to the unexpected event that was governed by the actor. In short, infants as early as 15 month old, understood the belief and knowledge of others, thus, show curiosity towards action inconsistent with the person’s belief.

Evidences from previous studies suggest that theory of mind may have been an innate asset of survival in people. Infants could be born with cognition to understand other people mind. Nonetheless, innate ability needs time and requires social experience to blossom. The environment infants grew up in, including the way parents communicate and explain things to children influence the maturation of social experience in children (Bartsch and Wellman, 1989). Therefore, it is more likely that children would display full understanding on theory of mind later in life. A meta-analysis of 178 studies concluded that children age 4 years and above would most likely start to show competency of understanding others’ belief (Wellman et al. 2001). Saying that, it is not because at age of 4 they acquired sudden adult-like insight on theory of mind; it is more relevant that children at age of 4 and above had ample of social experiences and the capability to control other cognitive skills. In conclusion, infants have a minimal theory of mind but it only develops a full representational theory of mind later which is most likely to be on their fourth birthday.


Bartsch, K., & Wellman, H. M. (1989). Young children’s attribution of action to beliefs and desires. Child Development, 60, 946-964.

Chandler, M. J. & Birch, S. A. J. (2010). The Development of Knowing. Handbook of life-span development:Biology, cognition, and methods across the life-span, Hoboken, NJ.

Chandler, M., Fritz, A. S., & Hala, S. (1989). Small scale deceit: Deception as a marker of 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds early theories of mind.  Child Development, 60, 1263-1277.

Gopnik, A., & Astington, j. W. (1988). Children’s understanding of representational change and its relation to the understanding of false belief and the appearance-reality distinction. Child Development, 59, 26-37.

Keysar, B., Barr, D. J., Balin, J. A., & Brauner, J. S. (2000). Taking Perspective in Conversation: The role of mutual knowledge in comprehension. Psychological Science, 11(1), 32-38.

Lewis, C., & Osborne, A. (1990). Three-year-olds’ problems with false belief: Conceptual deficit or linguistic artifact? Child Development, 61, 1514-1519.

Onishi, K. H., Baillargeon, R., & Leslie, A. M. (2007). 15-month-old infants detect violations in pretend scenarios. Acta Psychologica, 124, 106-128.

Onishi, K., & Baillargeon, R. (2005). Do 15-month-old infants understand false beliefs? Science, 308, 255–258.

Perner, J., Leekam, S. R., & Wimmer, H. (1987). Three-year-olds’ difficulty with false belief. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 5, 125-137

Piaget, J. (1951). Egocentric thought and sociocentric thought. J. Piaget, Sociological studies, 270-286.

Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children

Siegal, M., & Beattie, K. (1991). Where to look first for children’s understanding of false beliefs. Cognition, 38, 1-12.

Wellman, H. M., Cross, D., & Watson, J. (2001). Meta-Analysis of Theory-of-Mind Development: The Truth about False Belief. Child Development, 72(3), 655-684.

Wimmer, H. & Perner, J. (1983). Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception. Cognition, 13, 103-128.

Wimmer, H., & Hartl, M. (1991). Against the Cartesian view on mind: Young children’s difficulty with own false beliefs. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9, 125-1         28.

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