When can children be said to have a theory of mind?
Theory of mind has been defined as the ability to think about other people’s mental states and form theories of how they think. It is part of the so-called social cognition which is the term given to knowledge about people and affairs. The notion of theory of mind became important in Psychology following an experiment by Premack and Woodruff (1978) in which they attempted to test whether chimpanzees have a theory of mind. After the publication of this paper it was suggested that children could be tested to see if they had a theory of mind by giving them a false belief task. This is a test to see whether a child will act on a knowingly incorrect belief, or be aware that a second person who is not in possession of a certain piece of information may act incorrectly. Over the last decades many experiments with false belief tasks were conducted in order to test when children develop theory of mind and the results have shown that after about four years of age children realise that another person can have inaccurate belief about the world. However, it has been argued by some researchers that children develop theory of mind earlier and others have stressed that theory of mind cannot be regarded as fully developed in four-year-old children, but rather as a skill that develops for several years after children are successful on typical false belief tasks. I am going to explore some of the studies and arguments dealing with the question of when children can be said to have a theory of mind.
Wimmer and Perner (1983) developed two very famous false belief tasks, an unexpected transfer task and a deceptive box task. In the unexpected transfer task the child is presented with the following scenario: Maxi puts his chocolate in the kitchen cupboard and leaves the room to play. While he is away (and cannot see) his mother moves the chocolate from the cupboard to the drawer. Maxi returns. Where will he look for his chocolate, in the drawer or in the cupboard? In this task children are also asked a control question to ensure that they remember the original location of the chocolate. In the deceptive box task children are shown a Smarties tube that contains pencils rather than Smarties. Children are asked what another child, who has not seen inside the Smarties tube, will think is inside. Three-year-old children almost always fail theory of mind tasks. In the Maxi task they say that Maxi will look in the new location for his chocolate rather than the original location in which he placed it and where he would expect it to be. In the Smarties task three-year-olds say that another child will expect there to be pencils in the tube. Four- and five-year-olds, however, normally pass both the unexpected transfer and the deceptive box tasks indicating that they are able to distinguish between their own knowledge and that of another person. Therefore Wimmer and Perner argued that children exhibit an understanding of false belief at 4-5 years of age.
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