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Understanding what others think

Updated Wednesday, 13th June 2007
This example of how young children understand what others think shows some of the ways in which our research is carried out and our ideas about child development

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Theory of mind tasks

'Theory of Mind' tasks have generated a large amount of research and interest. Having a theory of mind enables a person to work out the beliefs and thoughts of another person, this ability is thought to develop in the fourth year of life.

Look at the demonstration and work out what you would say in reply to the adult's question about Sally and Anne. The task involves a story about a marble being moved to a new location by one person, when the other person does not see it being moved.

Adult: This is Sally, and this is Anne. Alright? Now, Sally comes in with her marble. Sally puts her marble into the basket, and goes out. Anne comes and gets the marble and she puts the marble in the box. Here comes Sally, here comes Sally. Now, where will Sally look for the marble?

Child: Here.

Adult: Right.

Child: There you go Sally

Adult: You got it for her, hooray.


In this video clip, the young girl who took part in the task thought that Sally would look in the place where the object really is, and did not understand that Sally's belief about the location of the marble would be different from her own. As we can see, sometimes young children have difficulty remembering what their belief was after it has changed.



Another task that is famous in relation to theory of mind involves a tube of sweets. A child is asked a question about what is in a sweet tube and then shown them that their answer is incorrect. The investigator next asks the child what they originally believed was in the tube, to see whether their current belief makes them think that they gave the new and correct answer when they first saw the tube:

Adult: Amy, can you tell me what’s inside here, what’s inside here?

Child: Smarties.

Adult: Good job. Okay shall we open it up? Oh look, there are pencils inside. Shall we put them back in again and close it up? Okay, now when you first saw this tube, all closed up like this, what did you think was inside?

Child: Pencils.

Adult: Good job. Well you’ve been a super game player, you’ve done a super job.

However, it is not the case that young children and even babies always fail to take account of other people when carrying out actions, as can be seen on the next page.



Although a number of investigations show that young children can experience difficulties in working out what another person is thinking, it is worth remembering that even babies can show a basic appreciation of another person's feelings. See whether this young baby shows an understanding of what another person likes to eat, even when it is different from their own liking.

Adult: Another one, and another one, and another one. Now can you give me one, can you give me one? Can you? You give me one. Can I have one? Thank you. Excellent. And another one, can I have another one, can you give me another one? Jasmine? Jasmine. Here you are, do you want to take? Right we’ll move on to the next stage I think.

Now, what have we got here? What have we got here? Yes, you can. Thank you

Mother: That’s very nice.

Adult: Right, now Jasmine, look I’m going to try some of these. Ooh, what’s that? Brocolli. Mmmm, yum yum, lovely, I like broccoli. That’s nice. What are these? I’m going to try one of these biscuits. Ugh, yuk, I don’t like that biscuit. Ugh.

Jasmine, can I have some to eat, can you give me some please, can you give me some? Thank you. Can I have some? Can I have some? Thank you.


Young children have difficulty appreciating that the thoughts and beliefs of other people can be different from their own. The video clips show that children can have an incorrect or 'false belief' about what another person is thinking or even what they themselves have thought. However, most children progress beyond this level and can often work out the beliefs and assumptions of another person. This is a capacity at which humans excel compared to even our nearest relatives, chimpanzees and apes.

Methods of studying children

The collection of articles, videos, photos and audio exploring child development has been made possible by a partnership between the British Psychological Society and The Open University Child and Youth Studies Group.


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