Theory of Mind

Early cognitive development is also needed for figuring out the intentionality of those around us—why they do what they do. In the field of cognitive psychology, recent attention has been paid to social executive functions such as perspective taking. A related construct is “theory of mind” (ToM) which refers to our ability to understand human action in terms of mental states such as intention, desire, or belief (Zelazo, Qu, & Muller, 2005). By 18 months, there is some indication that children are starting to differentiate between their own and others’ mental states (Sodian, 2005). Four year olds begin to understand that other people do things because they want to and that other people may not want the same things as “I” want.

It is likely that theory of mind is learned through early interactions with caregivers. It is related to the constructs of “social perspective taking” and empathy. One might speculate that those with late developing ToM, or those who do not develop it fully, may be more inclined to aggress against others due to lack of empathy or frustration at not understanding the reasons for others’ behavior. The building blocks of ToM begin to form early in life. The preference for looking at faces draws infants into social interaction and infants have some understanding of others’ emotions by 12 months of age (Heberlein & Adolphs, 2005). In the first months of life, infants identify social information from voice and faces (Sodian, 2005). Because ToM develops early in life and may be taught through interactions with parents or influenced by intelligence, it represents another feature of early development that could be influenced by parental warmth, rejection, sensitivity, or neglect.

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