Development of sense of self & theory of mind

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Social Cognition

Development of the child's sense of self

Before we develop an understanding of others, it is generally agreed that we develop a sense of ourselves.

Lewis and Brooks-Gunn (1979) looked at infants understanding of their own sense of self by investigating self-recognition.

The mirror test: Lewis and Brooks-Gunn (1979) tested nearly 100 infant Ps aged 9-24 months. They found that in the 'no rouge' condition, very few babies touched their noses. In the 'rouge' condition, 25% of the 18 months old babies touched their nose and by 21 months, this increased to almost 75%. This told them that most infants can recognise themselves by the age of 21 months.

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Understanding emotions and developing empathy

Bischof-Kohler (1998) studied infants 16-24 months. They were tested using the mirror test. He then tested the infants ability to empathise by observing their reactions towards someone showing sadness towards an injured teddy.

The findings showed that self-recognition and empathy were highly correlated. They also noted that self-recognition and empathy are well developed by the age of 20 months and both are necessary for self-concious emotions.

The ability to understand emotions in the normally developing child starts early on so that by 3-4 they can understand other's emotions. In his Ellie the Elephant study, Harris (1989) concluded that as children becoe aware of their own mind, feelings etc, they can generalise this to others.

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Theory of Mind (ToM)

ToM is not a psychological theory; it is the term used to describe the development of understanding that someone else has a seperate mind to your own and therefore knowing that other people may not see the world as you do.

The term 'Theory of Mind' was first used by Premack and Woodruff (1978) when studying a chimpanzee's ability to predict a persons behaviour. It has since been used by psychologists when studying the development of social cognition in children.

Having a ToM enables us to;

  • Have a shared conceptual understanding of others
  • Make inferences about other peoples words/actions
  • Display empathy
  • Lie and decieve
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Testing for ToM - Sally-Anne test

Baron-Cohen et al (1985) undertook a natural experiment using the Sally-Anne false belief test to test 3 groups of children.

  • 20 autistic children between 6-16 and a mental age of 5.
  • 14 downs syndrome children between 6-17 and a mental age of 2
  • 27 normal children between 3-5

They found that autistic children did worse than the children with downs syndrome despite the fact that downs syndrome children had a much lower mental age. This and other evidence has been used to suggest that children with autism lack a ToM.

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Evaluation of Theory of Mind


Baron-Cohen proposed that the core problem in autism is a lack of development of a ToM. This idea therefore supports the biological approach, suggesting that nature has a significant role to play in the development of ToM


Support for the development of a ToM comes from a variety of false-belief tasks such as the Sally-Anne test. False-belief studies have been critisised as some researchers' suggest that young children's innability to answer correctly is the result of poor questioning. The standard test questions are too complex for very young children and could result in invalid answers.


This theory is useful because it seems to provide plausible explanations for many of the symptoms displayed by autistic children. Language development underpins the development of ToM. This is a major difficulty for people with autism. This may help to diagnose autism earlier.

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