Theory of Mind

It is quite an interesting experience when you have conversations with children on the phone.


Depending on how young the child is, if you ask what he/she is doing, for instance, the answer could be “I’m playing with this”.

The child thinks that you see and think the way he does. 

Sally-Ann Test

This test is usually carried out in the Sally-Anne Test where participants are introduced to dolls - Sally and Anne.

A scenario is described where Sally takes a marble and hides it in her basket. She then "leaves" the room. Anne removes the marble from Sally's basket and places it in her own box.

The  Belief Question is then posed: "Where will Sally look for her marble?" The correct answer is that Sally will look for her marble in her own basket, as she is unaware that it has been moved. 

The ability to answer correctly demonstrates an understanding that others may have beliefs that differ from one's own. This is known as the theory of mind. 

Individuals who struggle with the theory of mind may answer the question based on their own knowledge rather than considering Sally's perspective.

This is one of the reasons why we may sometimes find some people to be very controversial with a penchant for arguments in our social interactions.

Predictable order

This ability to see from other people’s point of view develops in childhood typically and in a predictable order. It doesn’t emerge overnight. 

People who do not have a well-developed theory of mind are unable to attribute mental states, such as beliefs, desires, and intentions, to other people. 

They therefore find it difficult to interpret the behaviour of others and to understand that others have their own thoughts, social competence, and emotions that also motivate their actions. 

Such people have to be frequently reminded that everyone is different and others are also entitled to their thoughts and opinions.

Theory of mind begins to develop in children as early as six months of age. They are observant and begin to learn so much from the environment.

They start imitating the people around them. In their own interactions with other children,  they later begin to learn that they are different from other people and others have different likes or dislikes which is okay.

Theory of mind emerges by age 4 -5 years and continues to develop as a person engages in more social interactions.

Having a good sense of humour and one’s ability to appreciate sarcasm and figurative speech are all complex language and emotions that rely on theory of mind.

Inability to understand

Some children with autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity have difficulty with theory of mind development and so must be given the necessary therapy to help them.

This shows by their inability to understand why people do and say the things they do. They struggle to have a conversation or even tell a story. Making friends is tough and engaging in pretend play is a tall order.

How’s your own theory of mind? Imagine that you’ve been offered a box full of your favourite candy.


When you open the box, you discover that it is filled with pencils instead of candy.

Your friend suddenly comes into the room and sees the closed box with pictures of candy on it, what would he or she think is inside? 

False beliefs

If you answered “candy”, then you understand “false beliefs”, which means you know that someone can believe something that is not true because they don’t share the same knowledge that you do. 

Try this test on as many 3-year-olds as you can find and see how they answer “pencils”, because they have not reached this stage of understanding in their theory of mind development.


Most 5-year-olds should do better.

The writer is a Child Development expert/Fellow at Zero-to-three Academy, USA
E-mail: [email protected]

Connect With Us : 0242202447 | 0551484843 | 0266361755 | 059 199 7513 |

Like what you see?

Hit the buttons below to follow us, you won't regret it...