As humans, we don't just belong to a community of bodies. To borrow a lovely phrase from developmental psychologist Katherine Nelson, we also belong to a "community of minds."
We engage with each other as individuals with thoughts and with feelings and beliefs. When I reach for the chocolate, you don't just see a moving arm; you see an intentional action that can be explained by appeal to my desire for chocolate. To predict which gift my partner will like best, I consider his preferences and beliefs — the contents of his mind.
The ability to infer and reason about people's mental states is sometimes referred to as "theory of mind, " or more charmingly, as "mind reading." It's something most of us do pretty well, while falling far short of perfection. Misunderstandings happen all the time, and it can be hard to adopt the perspective of a person with fundamentally different beliefs, especially about things we hold dear — religion, politics, morality.
The challenge of "reading" other minds begins in early childhood, as young children start to make sense of the social and physical world around them. But the challenge for young children is much greater than ours: It's not only a matter of figuring out the contents of particular minds, but of figuring out the underlying mechanics. They need to appreciate that other people can have desires that depart from their own. They need to understand that people's behavior isn't simply governed by reality, but by their beliefs about reality. If I prefer chocolate to lollipops, for example, I'll reach for the chocolate, even if you would prefer the lollipops. If I believe the chocolate is in the cupboard (and not in the refrigerator), I'll look for it in the cupboard, even if I'm wrong.
At this point, hundreds of studies have investigated how it is that children develop a theory of mind. When do different abilities emerge? Is there variation across cultures? Are some children better mind readers than others? If so, why?
Among the most contentious questions is how mind-reading ability develops at all. Does theory of mind emerge through a process of maturation, more or less like puberty? Or is it something children learn through their experience in the world?
These questions don't have easy answers, but three decades of research offer new opportunities for tackling them in powerful and systematic ways. Rather than a piecemeal approach, inching forward one study at a time, researchers are using the tools of meta-analysis to synthesize findings across dozens of studies that have already been conducted. By looking at multiple studies in aggregate, researchers can get a better sense for which findings are reliable and robust, whether effects are large or small, and whether multiple factors interact to generate a given finding.
A paper forthcoming in the journal Child Development does exactly this. It aggregates the results of more than 93 data sets to identify whether the features of the family environments of 3- to 7-year-old children predict the emergence of one crucial aspect of theory of mind: an understanding that other people can have false beliefs. False belief understanding is among the most studied milestones in theory of mind development because it signals the emergence of an ability to represent beliefs as distinct from reality.
The paper, authored by Rory Devine and Claire Hughes, digs into the relationship between false belief understanding and four features of a child's home environment: parental socioeconomic status, number of siblings in the home, the extent to which parents use mental state terms in talking with their child, and the parents' "mind-mindedness" — that is, their tendency to view their child as a psychological agent, as reflected in the way they talk to or about their child.
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