Young Children and Theory of Mind

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 manage to generate such ingenious plan?

All of us were once a little kid with an egocentrism at heart. Egocentrism refers to those who believe that others perceive what they are perceiving, think what they are thinking and desire what they desired and actually think that the world evolves around them. Piaget proposed that children in the preoperational stage, where the age varies from 2 to 7 years old, engaged in thinking and communication that are usually egocentric.

Piaget concept of egocentrism later became the outset of many renowned types of research on the theory of mind. 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. However, younger children rarely show any understanding of the theory of mind. So, what definite age does the theory of mind arises?

There are 2 stances in regards to the theory of mind:- the scoffers and the boosters

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.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 the theory of mind at an early age. However, their competence could not be demonstrated because of task assessment strategy. There is a chance that they understood the concept of unique minds but they lack the skills required to complete the task. It is possible that lack of developing skills in cognitive areas such as language relates to children’s fruitless attempt on false belief task. Perhaps younger children were underestimated for not being able to perform during false belief task?

A classic false belief task  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. The previous finding was supported by Gopnik & Astington (1988), they proposed that children undergo a radical conceptual shift regarding the theory of mind at 4 years of age.



Playing animals name cards with my little neighbors. They taught me Mandarin, I taught them English

At this point, the only way to compare whether the theory of mind evolves gradually or radically is to improvise 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. Evidence began to emerge that younger children understand the theory of mind; however because of their lack of verbal potential, they failed to reveal their understanding during false belief task. Thus, using another method, infants as early as 15 months old are found able to understand the belief and knowledge of others.

This suggests that the 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, I personally think that innate ability needs time and requires social experience to blossom. And of course, we should consider the environment infants grew up in-including the way parents communicate and explain things to children. Environments can influence the maturation of social experience in children.

Are you with Scoffers or Booster?



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