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Making sense of ourselves
Making sense of ourselves

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4.1 Becoming social: how children learn to read others’ minds

The development of theory of mind is an important part of this allowing the child to understand others and social interaction. In this section you will undertake an activity to explore how children develop this ability and how psychologists study and measure theory of mind.

Activity 8 ‘Reading the mind in the eyes’ test

Look at Figures 5(a)–(d) below. For each pair of eyes, select the emotion that the person photographed is most likely to be feeling.

Source: Taken from Baron-Cohen et al. (1997, p. 816–17)
Figure 5(a)

1. Does picture 5(a) depict a playful or serious emotion?

a. 

Playful


b. 

Serious


The correct answer is b.

Source: Taken from Baron-Cohen et al. (1997, p. 816–17)
Figure 5(b)

2. Does picture 5(b) depict a concerned or unconcerned emotion?

a. 

Concerned


b. 

Unconcerned


The correct answer is a.

Source: Taken from Baron-Cohen et al. (1997, p. 816–17)
Figure 5(c)

3. Does picture 5(c) depict a sympathetic or unsympathetic emotion?

a. 

Sympathetic


b. 

Unsympathetic


The correct answer is a.

Source: Taken from Baron-Cohen et al. (1997, p. 816–17)
Figure 5(d)

4. Does picture 5(d) depict a reflective or unreflective emotion?

a. 

Reflective


b. 

Unreflective


The correct answer is a.

Discussion

The task above, based on the work of Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues (1997), is designed to measure relatively advanced (adult) levels of a cognitive ability that psychologists call theory of mind (ToM). ToM refers to the capacity of human beings to use information in order to ‘read’ what other people might be thinking or feeling in a given context. This may sound simple, however ‘mind reading’ involves a highly sophisticated range of cognitive skills, including the ability to take the spatial, social and emotional perspective of another person, to organise and evaluate contextual cues about what they might be thinking or feeling, and to decode subtle non-verbal behaviours. With no more information than a truncated picture of someone’s eyes, for example, many of you will have successfully decoded the feelings of at least some of the people pictured above.

Although ToM is widely viewed as an innate, cross-culturally universal ability, children are not born with this ability fully formed. It is something that builds over time and gradually increases in sophistication as the child learns through interaction with others. Infants and young children, for example, would struggle to complete the task presented above (even if they understood the meaning of terms such as ‘playful’ and ‘serious’). They have not yet learned how to decode the ‘language of the eyes’ (Baron-Cohen et al., 1997), which is one of the many skills that underpin ToM. In order to map the developmental trajectory of ToM in children, psychologists have had to devise other methods.