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Theory of Mind—Still Meaningful Nearly 40 Years Later

Theory of Mind

The ability to know that people have different thoughts and feelings from our own, and to infer how those mental states affect people’s actions and behaviors (American Psychological Association, 2024).

Beginning in the 1950s with classical Piagetian theory, researchers have been working to revolutionize, quantify, and characterize theory of mind and the role it plays in human development and psychology (Meltzoff, 1999). 

Our own Dr. G.-Jürgen Hogrefe, Hogrefe Publishing Group’s CEO and Chairman, has played an important role in this work. During his doctoral program at the University of Salzburg in Austria in the 1980s, Dr. Hogrefe and his colleagues Wimmer and Perner ran several research studies to measure the capacity of young children to make social inferences based on explicit and implicit information. In one such study (Hogrefe et al., 1986), the authors investigated whether children between 3 and 4 years old could compartmentalize the “secret” knowledge they were given to accurately infer what someone without that knowledge would think. The children were asked what they believe to be the contents of a well-known box that looked as though it held chocolate (Toblerone). After the child guessed "chocolate," the box was opened and, in fact, contained pencils. The researcher then closed the box and asked the child what they thought another person, who had not been shown the true contents of the box, would think is inside of it. 

Hogrefe et al. (1986) found that children at the age of 3 were not capable of such social perspective taking. In a transitional phase children understand that the other person will not know what is inside the chocolate box, but when asked what the other person was likely to guess about the contents, they would still respond with “pencils,” as that is what they saw in the box. Only as a next developmental step at about 4 years of age could they fully understand the other person’s false belief and respond with “chocolate.” 

Later this experiment was often replicated and became known as “Smarties task” (because a box of those candies was used with the children in North America) (Gopnik & Astington, 1988). This type of task is still used today to help understand theory of mind, and it is a key factor in identifying neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (Byom & Mutlu, 2013).

One of the most widely used assessments for determining theory of mind and other critical cognitive skills in young children is the NEPSY®-II, which includes a wide range of neuropsychological subtests for young children and is often used as part of early childhood evaluations. However, the entire battery can be time-consuming to administer, and the Social Perception domain gathers children’s responses to mostly static, hypothetical scenarios.

Hogrefe is pleased to offer the new Early Sociocognitive Battery (ESB) (Roy et al., 2024), which measures critical foundational social communication skills required to develop theory of mind at a faster pace with pretend play. The ESB provides a dynamic opportunity to directly assess these skills in children as young as 18 months old in about 15 minutes. Compared to other social cognition assessments, the ESB assesses a wider variety of social cognitive skills, with multiple opportunities to measure a child’s response. Indeed, theory of mind is a critical aspect of social cognition and communication, and it is needed for building social relationships, solving problems, and working in a group. The ESB has been shown to be predictive of later language and social communication difficulties that are often experienced by children who have been diagnosed with ASD, making the tool an essential component of any early childhood evaluation. 

By identifying gaps in preschoolers’ social communication skills early, the ESB can provide professionals with the information needed to help understand the child’s challenges—and provide solutions tailored to the child at that critical young age.

The ESB has been researched and standardized in the United States, the United Kingdom, Finland, and Italy. Data is currently be collected on children ages 18 month–5 years in Spain, France, and Sweden. 

References:

American Psychological Association. (2024). Theory of Mind. In APA dictionary of psychology. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from https://dictionary.apa.org/theory-of-mind  

Byom, L. J., & Mutlu, B. (2013). Theory of mind: Mechanisms, methods, and new directions. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 413. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00413 

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(1), 26–37. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.1988.tb03192.x  

Hogrefe, G.J., Wimmer, H., & Perner, J. (1986). Ignorance versus false belief: A developmental lag in attribution of epistemic states. Child Development, 57(3), 567-582. https://doi.org/10.2307/1130337 

Meltzoff, A. N. (1999). Origins of theory of mind, cognition and communication. Journal of Communication Disorders, 32(4), 251–269. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0021-9924(99)00009-x 

Roy, P., Chiat, S., & Warwick, J. (2024). Early Sociocognitive Battery (ESB): Manual. Hogrefe Publishing Corp. 

Wimmer, H., Hogrefe, G.J., & Perner, J. (1988). Children’s understanding of informational access as source of knowledge. Child Development, 59(2), 386-396. https://doi.org/10.2307/1130318 

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