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Children's Cognitive Social Development in Connection to the Children's Theory of Mind

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Theory of mind is the social cognitive ability of assuming the contents of another beings mind. In the social world it is important to understand how to behave when one goes out in public when their family goes out to dinner at a restaurant, not what two plus four equals. Social cognition is separate from intelligence. Someone who may be socially awkward could be a completely brilliant chemist. The social learning theory is the work of one great Albert Bandura; it states that humans learn social behavior by simply observing others. For example, if a young child sees their parent has table manners and puts their napkin on their lap, then he/she will replicate that act.

There are links between children’s theory of mind and their everyday social competence. In an experiment aimed to examine whether the development of theory of mind is associated with social competence; and if social peer play relates with social competence in young children, it was found that both are connected. Youngsters who take part in social interactive play (i.e. interacting with others in a playful context) display social competence and higher rates of passing false belief tasks. Preschoolers whom partake in solitary play inversely relate with social competence and coincide with behavioral problems. But, not just any, it is role play that is the promoter of the development of a theory of mind. Role play enables children to simulate others’ mental states. There is a noteworthy importance of communicated collaboration during role play for the development of young children’s social aptitude. It is also achieved through engagement with a more skilled individual. Theory of mind means the ability to understand and predict the behavior and feelings of others. Children who have developed theory of mind are typically more socially interactive because they take the perspective of others, anticipate others’ intentions and understand their needs (Jenvey & Newton, 2010).

This ability typically develops around ages 4-5. It can be tested by using a standard false-belief task. False-belief is the recognition that people may have differing ideas about the same objective situation and that their behavior is driven by those ideas (Moore, Peterson, & Slaughter, 2013). In a study conducted to find if autism directly links to the inability to have such theory researchers tested children with mental retardation like Down syndrome, average toddlers, and autistic kids. Autistic children will consistently fail the false belief task while those with Down syndrome and average neurological development attributed that the doll that was used in this experiment had different knowledge. This justifies autistic subjects whom are unable to accredit beliefs to others hence they are at a crucial disadvantage when having to predict the behavior of other people (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985).

The attribution of a false belief proves to be more difficult in younger children (e.g. 3-4 year olds). 3-year-olds especially have difficulty attributing a false-belief (Hogrefe, Wimmer, & Perner, 1986). 4-year-olds could not attribute a second order belief and only a few 5-year-olds were able to ascribe second order false beliefs (Hogrefe, et al., 1986). A faction of 3-year-olds made competent attributions of false beliefs. Yet the population of 5- and 6-year-olds was much greater is solving the false-belief task. This suggests that between the ages 3 to 5, children undergo a transitional period in which they acquire first an understanding of somebody else’s ignorance before they come to appreciate, with about 1 year delay, another person’s false belief (Hogrefe, et al., 1986). This experiment will test the age at which a child will develop a theory of mind by testing a false-belief task. The researcher believes that by age 5 children will solve a false-belief task.


Subjects: I recruited my participants by asking a close friend Michelle Kerrigan, the owner of a local preschool and learning center, Joshua’s Tree if I could assess a few of her students for a collegiate study. She picked three children ages 3, 4, and 5 to play a part in my research of adolescent psychological development. After an agreement I met with 3-year-old Justin, boy, Caucasian/Jamaican; 4-year-old Erica, girl, Caucasian; and 5-year-old Tommy, boy, Caucasian. English is the primary language for all children. Children with diagnosed developmental, intellectual, or sensory disabilities were not included in this experiment.

Materials: I utilized a brown, red, and white cylindrical tootsie roll container, took out the candy, and replaced the contents with various toy rubber dinosaurs. The researcher included a red toy car reward for boys’ participation in this study and girls received a pink stuffed animal to motivate their contribution in this experiment.

Procedure: The researcher performed an experiment that assesses children’s ability to accurately represent someone else’s mental state. The assessment was conducted during normal schooling time at around 10 a.m. in a separate play room away from the other children. My first step was introducing myself to the child. I showed them the container and questioned, “What do you think is in this container?” and recorded their response. Then, to attribute belief to someone else I asked, “What do you think Ms. Michelle would think is in this container?” and logged their results. They were then shown that they were holding a wrong belief, that is, that the container did not contain what they had stated, but something else.

They were allowed to pick a dinosaur of their choice to keep and I placed the lid back on the container. I inquired, “What is in the container?” and wrote down their answer. I then applied Meta cognition saying, “What did you think was in the container before?” writing down their response. Finally I asked “What would Ms. Michelle think is in the container now?” and recorded the answer. I rewarded the boys with a toy car and the girl with a stuffed animal and walked them out.


The 3-year-old Justin initially assumed that in the tootsie roll container lie butterflies and that Ms. Michelle would also trust that there were butterflies. After opening the container to find that toy dinosaurs were the contents he giggled and failed to attribute a false belief responding that he always knew that there were dinosaurs in the tootsie roll container and that Ms. Michelle would also know. I gave him his toy truck and led him out of the room.

I then encountered 4-year-old Erica whom failed as well. She enthusiastically guessed that white paint was in the container and that Ms. Michelle would also believe so. After opening the container she stated that she knew dinosaurs were in the container from the beginning and that Ms. Michelle would imagine the contents of the container to be dinosaurs too. I gave her a plush toy and went to meet 5-year-old Tommy.

He was frustrated because he could not read the label on the container. After telling him tootsie rolls he predicted tootsie rolls were the contents and that Ms. Michelle would also. Once he opened the container and saw toy dinosaurs he responded correctly saying that he thought that there were tootsie rolls in the container at the beginning and that Ms. Michelle would still think that there were tootsie rolls in there container.


The findings of this study show that the social cognitive development is learned in due time. The theory of mind differs by age and is not matured enough to attribute a false belief until the age of 5-years-old. By the time they are five years of age, children have achieved a significant perceptive breakthrough, having an adult-like theory of mind (Jenvey, et al., 2010). The development of Meta cognition is also important in solving a false-belief task. Most children are egocentric in that they interpret objects from only their own perspective until they develop an altruistic psychological state of thinking.

This experiment also demonstrates a cognitive accomplishment that is fundamentally unrelated to general intellectual level and has the aptitude to explain both lack of pretend play and social impairment (Baron-Cohen, et al., 1985). Although, Erica, the 4-year-old girl could read, she failed the false belief task; while Tommy, a 5-year-old whom could not read, solved the false belief task. It took him quite some time to respond with his guess of what was hidden in the tootsie roll container. I believe he was worried about being wrong and/or aggravated with not being able to read. Therefore, I would alter my approach and tell the subject that there is no wrong or right answer and read to them what is on the container.

I would also like to know what role gender differences play in the attribution of false-belief and theory of mind. Role play and not pretend play in general, promotes children’s theory of mind. Girls tend to socially role play more often than boys because they solitarily do so. However, there are not any conclusive studies to prove girls are more social in role play and/or have a higher rate of development in theory of mind over boys (Moore, et al., 2012).

These findings are consistent with my hypothesis that by age 5 children will pass a false belief task; as well as what other scientific psychiatric studies have found. For instance, a large population of 5 to 6-year-olds, made competent acknowledgements of false beliefs (Hogrefe, et al., 1986). A child’s general occurrence of theory of mind tasks positively correlates with age (Jenvey, et al., 2010). However, the mental age of the autistic children were higher than that of the controls children with and without Down syndrome), they failed to impute beliefs to others (Hogrefe, et al., 1986).

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