SOCIAL COGNITION: THEORY OF MIND
SOCIAL COGNITION: THEORY OF MIND
A major strength of the experimental method used by Baron-Cohen was the precise control of variables. For example, by ensuring that the autistic children were the most intelligent of the three groups he was able to control for levels of intelligence. He therefore ensured that it was not lower levels of intelligence which caused the autistic children to get the belief question wrong but rather it was something to do with being autistic.
A major weakness of this method is its lack of ecological validity. For example, it could be argued that autistic children don't attribute beliefs to dolls because they have a more developed theory of mind than the experimenter who seems to think that a lump of plastic can think in the same way as a person. The obvious way to improve the experiment would be to use real people instead of dolls.
Baron-Cohen at al (1985)
investigated whether autistic children would understand that someone else could have a belief that was different from theirs (false belief task)
Three groups were studied - children with autism with an average age of 12 years, children with Down's Syndrome with an average age of 11 years, and 'normal' children with an average age of 4 years. The experiment used 2 dolls - Sally had a basket; Anne a box. Children were asked to name the dolls (the
). Then Sally was seen to hide a marble in her basket and leave the room. Anne took the marble and put it in her box. Sally returned and the child was asked, 'Where will Sally look for her marble?' (the
). The correct response is the basket, where Sally believes the marble to be. They were also asked, 'Where is the marble really?' (
) and 'Where was the marble in the beginning?' (
). Each question was tested again with the marble in a different place.
All of the children got the naming, reality and memory questions correct. In the belief question, the children with Down's Syndrome scored 86%, the 'normal' children 85%, but the children with autism scored 20%.
The findings suggest that children with autism have an under-developed theory of mind, sometimes called mind-blindness. They seem unable to predict or understand the beliefs of others.
Baron-Cohen thinks autistic children don't develop a theory of mind and therefore are unable to develop the complex skills of social interaction that other children develop with ease.
Baron-Cohen used the term mind-blindness to explain what he meant about children with autism lacking a theory if mind and this explains why they find other people's behaviour confusing and unpredictable.
There's a suggestion that autistic individuals aren't able to represent to themselves the inner mental states of others and therefore are unable to think about how others might think or feel.
Children with autism also find deception quite shocking, i.e that someone might try and lie or not mean exactly what they say, as they cannot understand that others can hold thoughts that are different to themselves.
Evaluation of Theory of Mind as an explanation of autism
The fact that a few autistic children can succeed on false belief tasks weakens the argument for theory of mind as an explanation of autism.
Despite the numerous studies that have been carried out, researchers still don't know whether theory of mind is a cause of autism, or a symptom.
Theory of mind can explain certain symptoms of autism, such as impaired social interaction and even impaired imagination, but it can't explain all the symptoms. For example, it can't explain why 1 in 10 autistic individuals have special talents, and it can't explain other symptoms such as repeating the same sounds over and over again (echolalia)
Autistic children also often have a lack of pretend play. Baron-Cohen argues that this can be explained as an inability to reflect on one's own (rather than another's) thoughts. Imagine a child playing at 'mothers and babies' with her doll. To take the role of mother and treat the doll as her baby, the child must be able to hold simultaneously in her mind two conflicting sets of beliefs. She knows that in reality she's a little girl, and her doll is a toy. At the same time, she must 'think' the opposite - that she's a mother and her doll is a baby. So she must 'think about her thoughts'.
Theory of mind
Theory of mind relates the understanding that someone else has a separate mind and doesn't see or experience the world as you do; ability to understand or read the mind of others; put themselves into other peoples' shoes and 'take their perspective.' It allows children to still act on them. It's argued that a child develops a theory of mind between 4 and 6 years of age. Although some evidence has demonstrated that children as young as two have a theory of mind. Having a theory of mind is the ability to understand that other people have independent minds of their own.
Theory of mind is an 'understanding that people are cognitive beings with rich mental lives that are available to themselves and not others' (
Lewis and Mitchell (1994)
theory of mind is 'the ability to make inferences about others' representational states and to predict behaviour accordingly.' The theory of mind was first proposed
Premack and Woodruff (1978)
in their experiment on primates. They observed behaviours within chimpanzees that would require an understanding of another individuals' mental reasoning. This observation has sparked lots of interest within the area of developmental psychology and a debate has arisen for which the precise age this ability develops isn't clearly understood.
To test theory of mind, investigators use false belief tasks. This is a task that allows analysis of cognitive processing by seeing whether they can recognise that others can have beliefs about the world that are wrong.
There is disagreement on the idea that theory of mind suddenly develops at 4 years of age. It's argued it's more gradual and starts developing from the age of 2 years.
Lack of theory of mind is similar to Piaget's ideas of egocentrism. They occur at similar ages, suggesting a link.
Success may not be due to theory of mind, but to another general intellectual skill, e.g language. Older children do better on false-belief tasks because they're better with language, i.e they understand the task better
(Lewis and Osborne 1990).
Autism and Theory of Mind
The term autism was originally introduced by the psychiatrist Kanner to describe a syndrome (a collection of symptoms) he observed in some of his child patients. Autistic children typically have difficulties in social interaction and in language and non-verbal communication, and have a restricted range of activities and interests. Symptoms in all these areas appear before 36 months of age. Some autistic children have additional difficulties and may be intellectually impaired. Some autistic children have exceptional gifts, termed islets of ability, in one particular area, such as music or art. In most cases autism is a life-long condition, although the patterns of difficulties may change or become less severe as the child grows up.
There have been many explanations for the origins of autism and attempts have been made to identify a core deficit which can account for the symptoms of autism. According to Baron-Cohen, the core deficit of autism is the autistic person's inability to employ a theory of mind.