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The Role of Language on Theory of Mind

  • Date Submitted: 01/28/2010 07:01 AM
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Understanding the mental state of others is an important developmental stage.   This is referred to as theory of mind (TOM) in psychology.   Between the ages of four and five children start to grasp the mental states of others (Callaghan, Rochat, Lillard, Claux, Odden, Itakura, Tapanya, & Singh, 2005).   It is important to understand the socioemotional states of others to interact in a social environment. Recent studies have suggested that language has an effect on theory of mind development.

Theory of mind is measured by false belief tasks. These are task designed to assess children’s understanding of the mental states of others. There are three general tasks to assess theory of mind. A change of location tasks involves having a character place an object somewhere and then leave the room. When the character is gone, the object is moved.   When the character returns, the participant is asked to say where the character would look for the object. If the participant understands the character’s state of mind, they will say the character would look in the location the object was originally placed (Cheung, Hsuan-Chih, Creed, Ng, Wang, & Mo, 2004). In another task, the unexpected contents task, the participant is given a box with something inside that does not reflect the type of box.   The participant is then asked what they thought was in the box at first, and what other people would think was in the box (Cheung, et al., 2004). The third false belief task, appearance-reality, involves the participant judging the nature of an object that resembles something else, like a sponge that looks like a rock. The experimenter asks the participant what they first though the object was, and what someone else would think it was (Cheung et al., 2004).

Development of theory of mind is generally hypothesized to be universal (Callaghan et al., 2005). There is evidence for biological precursors to theory of mind development but they may be differential...


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