Theory of Mind describes the competence to reflect on one’s own thoughts and feelings as well as on the thoughts and feelings of other people. This includes understanding that one’s own knowledge, desires, beliefs, and emotions can differ from those of others and to refer to these mental states in order to explain, predict and adjust the behaviour of both themselves and others.
Theory of Mind, the ability to recognize and to reflect the mental and emotional lives of both one’s own self and also of others, is a precondition for social competence and efficacy.
Someone who has developed Theory of Mind,
- knows that other people hold different mental states such as thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs.
Example: A child knows that people can think of something nice, wish for a special present for their birthday or plan a holiday trip.
- is able to understand or share other people’s thoughts and feelings.
Example: A child understands that her/his best friend is thinking about tomorrow’s maths exam and is worried about whether she/he has studied enough for it.
- can understand that one’s own knowledge, beliefs, emotions and desires can differ from those of other people.
Examples: A child likes chocolate ice cream and knows that her/his mother prefers strawberry ice cream.
A child knows that her/his father thinks the dog stole the sausage because she/he did not see the cat eating the sausage.
- can recognize the feelings and thoughts of other people, interpret and explain their behaviour.
Example: A child recognizes from the tired expression on her/his friend’s face that she/he is not feeling well today. The child understands that this is why she/he does not feel like playing today.
- is able to engage in social interaction and communicate effectively.
Example: In an argument, a child can take another person’s point of view and reflects her/his behaviour. She/he can explain her/his own feelings and thoughts to the others.
Acquisition of Theory of Mind
Children acquire Theory of Mind in different stages regularly between 3 – 9 years of age. After the age of 4-5 years they are able to recognize false beliefs.
According to Peterson, Wellman and Liu (2005), Theory of Mind in children is a developmental process following different stages.