Mental Model: Theory of Mind

As we cannot read the minds of others, hypotheses have to be made. People with underdeveloped ‘theory of mind’, lack in accuracy in predicting others thoughts, feelings, mental states, beliefs, wishes, desires and reasons for actions.

You can test your own theory of mind here:

I (Rod Hollier) scored 26/36 - spot on average.

A Word of Warning:

We're in a time where people incorrectly pathologize each other. Non-psychologists use mental disorders in order explain why people don’t accept the argument they’ve created. However, their disagreement can be explained in other ways, such as through ‘cognitive dissonance’. Or more likely, they have information that you don't. 

Aspergers people have empathy:

It is important to recognize that the person with Asperger’s syndrome has immature or impaired ToM abilities or empathy, not an absence of empathy. To imply an absence of empathy would be a terrible insult to people with Asperger’s syndrome, with the implication that the person does not recognize or care about the feelings of others. The person does care, very deeply, but may not be able to recognize the more subtle signals of emotional states or ‘read’ complex mental states. [5]

The Nuts & Bolts of 'Theory of Mind:

(a) Deficits in theory of mind occurs in children under the age of 4, autism, ADHD, and schizophrenia.

(b) It affects:

(i) the joint sharing of attention in children [2]

(ii) the accuracy in predicting others thoughts, feelings, mental states, beliefs, wishes, desires, and reasons for actions.

(iii) the accuracy in predicting their own mental state. [2]

(c) Children with autism think that others think and feel exactly as they do. They do not recognise that others may vary.

(d) People with underdeveloped ‘theory of mind’ can determine social cues with rote learning, intellectual analysis, and memory. While people with developed ‘theory of mind’ perceive social situations with immediate intuition. [5]

Some Interesting Examples:

1. The 'False-Belief Task'

You can test a child for underdevelopment of the theory of mind using a variant of the “false-belief task.”

Two children are introduced. One child puts a toy under the bed and leaves the room. During his absence, the second child—the subject—removes it and hides it in a box. You ask the subject: Where, upon returning to the room, will the other child look for the toy?

Those under, say, the age of four (when the theory of mind starts developing), choose the box, while older children correctly say that the other child will look under the bed. At around that age, children start realizing that another person can be deprived of some of the information they have, and can hold beliefs that are different from their own.

Now, this test helps detect mild forms of autism: as high as one’s intelligence may be, it can be difficult for many to put themselves in other people’s shoes and imagine the world on the basis of other people’s information. [1]

2. 'False-Belief Task' in Action

3. The 'Social Attribution Task'

An intriguing study by Ami Klin (2000) used the Social Attribution Task (SAT) that was originally developed by Heider and Simmel (1944).

They made a cartoon animation film with a cast of ‘characters’ that are geometric shapes, which move in synchrony against one another, or as a result of the action of the other shapes. The film lasts only 50 seconds but has six sequential segments presented one at a time.

After each segment, the observer is asked ‘What happened there?’ to provide a narrative to the silent film. The observer is also asked questions such as ‘What kind of a person is the big triangle or the small circle?’

The authors of the task found that college students used anthropomorphic (human characteristics) words to describe the actions (chasing, entrapping and playing) and feelings (frightened, elated or frustrated) of the ‘characters’. [5]

When the SAT was used with adolescents with Asperger's syndrome it was found that there were significant differences between such subjects and their peers. Many of their comments were not pertinent to the video and they identified only one quarter of the social elements identified by the control subjects. 

The narratives of the control subjects, who easily attributed social meaning to the ambiguous scene, included descriptions of bravery or elation, complex personalities and social attributions that provided a coherent Social Story.

In contrast, the narrators with Asperger’s syndrome used different terms to explain the movements of the shapes. Their attributions tended to focus on the physical aspects, describing such movements as bouncing or oscillating because of a magnetic field. The person with Asperger's syndrome perceives the physical world more than the social world.

4. A Humorous Story

Chris was a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome who had a special interest in astronomy. Prior to attending a diagnostic assessment, his parents had asked him not to talk to me about the interest as his enthusiasm and tendency to bore people made him appear eccentric.

However, I knew of his remarkable knowledge of astronomy and started to ask Chris about some recent photographs of the surface of Mars that had been shown on television news programmes. Chris was aware that while I was keen to continue the conversation on astronomy, as was Chris, his parents, who were present and watching him, would not approve of the topic of conversation.

He was confused and withdrew by closing his eyes, but continued to talk about astronomy. I then explained to Chris the difficulty I had in continuing a conversation with someone whose eyes were closed. Chris replied, ‘Why would I want to look at you when I know where you are?’ [5]

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[1] The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

[2] Understanding Autism by Susan Dodd

[3] Neurocognition and Social Cognition in Schizophrenia Patients: Basic Concepts and Treatment by Volker Roder, Alice Medalia

[4] The Wisdom in Feeling: Psychological Processes in Emotional Intelligence by Lisa Feldman Barrett, Peter Salovey

[5] The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome by Tony Attwood

Categorisation: psychology → social cognition  

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