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Theory of Mind


Explanations > Theories > Theory of Mind

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 



Whilst 'minds' are not directly observable things, we tend to think a lot about them, forming theories about beliefs, values, emotions, motivations, thought processes and so on.

When we are interacting with others or thinking about them, we make guesses at what they are thinking and feeling. This is our 'theory of mind' about them (sometimes abbreviated to 'ToM'). We even do the same to ourselves, stepping back and watching ourselves think and feel as we try to work out who we really are.

In particular, we predict the intent of others, which helps us decide whether they are a threat or otherwise we should pre-emptively respond to their likely actions.

It is also notable how we evaluate what others are thinking and may conclude that they are wrong (eg. with a false belief). This gives us the opportunity to either correct their thinking or take advantage of their apparent misunderstanding.

This theory will be shaped by stereotypes and other simplifying schemas about people that we use, including our understanding of ourselves and our own thought processes.

In the short term with strangers we use available signals, including facial expressions and other non-verbal signals. Longer-term we use our accumulated knowledge about an individual and the models we have built about them.

We then often go on to assume that our guesses are true, interacting with others through our theory of mind, acting as if it were true. This can lead to all kinds of misinterpretations and misunderstanding.

Done well, using theory of mind can be very helpful in working with others and enables us to better fit into a social context, even to the point of adopting the perceived thought processes of others. Done badly, it is common source of conflict. It can easily be affected by our own mental state, for example if we are angry or feeling judgemental, we will easily assume others have bad or evil intent.

Children do not start out with a developed theory of mind process. This appears around the age of four and can be seen as they improve their assessments of what others will do.

Empathy is similar to theory of mind but is more about understanding what others are feeling, as opposed to the theory of mind focus on thinking.


Although it has been of philosophical interest for some time, modern work on theory of mind started with primate research, where Premack and Woodruff sought to understand the complexity of chimpanzee thinking.

In humans, Baron-Cohen found that understanding of attention in others appears in infants around 7 to 9 months, as and is a critical precursor to developing theory of mind.

Meltzoff identified how we use theory of mind in learning, not only imitating what others do but what they appear to think.

Research with children has successfully been done with dolls playing out a scenario and identifying what assumptions the child makes about what the dolls  'think'.


A parent notices that their child is not looking at them and assumes they are not listening.

A man thinks that the smiles of a woman are an invitation to romantic engagement. Sadly, he is proved wrong.

So What?

Using it

Understand that your thoughts about what others are thinking are just that, and that you can never really know what they are thinking. So try testing your assumptions before reacting.


When others seem to be acting based on erroneous theory of mind about you, ask them to describe what they think you are thinking or otherwise demonstrate that you are thinking differently.

See also

Stereotypes, Schema, Attribution Theory


Premack and Woodruff (1978), Baron-Cohen (1991), Meltzoff (2002)


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