The Theory of Mind and the False Belief Task

The Theory of Mind and the False Belief Task
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  • 0:02 Cognitive Development
  • 1:03 Theory of Mind
  • 2:57 False Belief Task
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

As people age, the way we understand others and the world around us changes. In this lesson, we'll examine one of the areas in which children's thinking changes, theory of mind, and how psychologists measure it with the false belief task.

Cognitive Development

Julie is three years old, and she thinks about the world in a different way from adults. She believes her mom when she says that monsters will get her if she doesn't brush her teeth, and she doesn't understand why she should eat dinner before dessert.

As Julie grows up, she'll come to understand that there are no dirty teeth monsters, but that she should brush her teeth anyway to keep her mouth healthy. She'll also realize that not all food is created equally, and that she would not be healthy if she just ate dessert all the time and never ate any healthy food.

The way we think changes as we grow, in a process psychologists call cognitive development. As people grow, they begin to understand the world and the people in it. They become better at solving problems and understanding complexities that they just didn't understand when they were younger. Let's look at one part of cognitive development, theory of mind, and how psychologists measure it with something called the false belief task.

Theory of Mind

One day, when she's playing, Julie pulls her mom's keys down off the table. Seeing this, her dad takes the keys from her and puts them in the cabinet way up high, further than Julie can reach. Julie goes back to her toys and her dad leaves to go to work. Later, though, there's a problem. Her mom looks at the table and can't find her keys. She looks all around: on the table, on the chairs, on the floor. She can't find the keys! Julie laughs because her mom should just get the keys from the cabinet.

Of course, to you or me, it might be obvious that Julie's mom isn't getting the keys from the cabinet because she doesn't know that that's where they are. But to Julie, it doesn't make sense. After all, if Julie knows where the keys are, surely so does her mom! The idea that other people know, want, or believe things that are different from what you know, want, or believe is called theory of mind. Basically, it's about understanding that everyone's mind is different.

To young children, like Julie, this doesn't make sense. Everything that the child knows or wants or believes should be known, wanted, or believed by everyone else. It's like Julie thinks that everyone shares a collective mind the same way that everyone has two eyes or a belly button. It just exists in the same way.

This is why Julie can't understand why her mom isn't just getting the keys from the cabinet; she hasn't developed a theory of mind, so she assumes that her mom knows that they are in the cabinet because Julie knows that they are in the cabinet. Likewise, Julie knows that the blue backpack with a rainbow on it is hers. But when someone else looks at all the backpacks in her preschool classroom, they might not know which one is hers. Julie doesn't understand why they wouldn't know that. After all, she knows it!

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