Theory of Mind

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Theory of Mind (TOM), the term coined by Premack and Woodruff (1978), is the cognitive capability of understanding another's mind. TOM triggered various issues in the domain of human cognitive development, among them a task called "false-belief task." In this task, children see a scene in which a character, Maxi, puts chocolate in a drawer and goes away. While he is away, his mother takes a bit of chocolate for cooking and then puts it somewhere else and leaves. Then Maxi comes back, and the experimenter asks: "Where will Maxi look for the chocolate?" Children of 3 years old predicted that Maxi will look for the chocolate where his mother has put it. Children over 5 predicted that Maxi will find it in the original place, the drawer. There is a clear difference in the cognitive ability of understanding other's belief at the age of around 4 years old. 

While humans seem to be the only ones possessing a full-blown theory of mind, one that includes understanding of false beliefs, other animals show various degrees of mentalizing abilities as well. Most great apes, in particular, pass the mirror test, which implies an understanding of self. There is debate as to whether they understand others as mental agents though, as there are very few examples of behaviors in the wild that would indicate this, e.g. teaching and tactical deception. Captive experiments have had contradictory results, however, most researchers now agree that chimpanzees can understand others’ goals and, possibly, intentions. They follow gaze and thus understand the informational content of visual orientation (although they tend to privilege head movements rather than eye movements). They can take into account another individual’s perception and modify their behavior accordingly.


  1. Great apes use self-experience to anticipate an agent’s action in a false-belief test, Kano, Fumihiro, Krupenye Christopher, Hirata Satoshi, Tomonaga Masaki, and Call Josep , Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019/09/25, p.201910095, (2019)
  2. Great apes distinguish true from false beliefs in an interactive helping task, Buttelmann, David, Buttelmann Frances, Carpenter Malinda, Call Josep, and Tomasello Michael , PLOS ONE, 2017/04/05, Volume 12, Issue 4, p.e0173793 - , (2017)
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