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Cognition and Development – Theory of Mind

3. Theory of Mind and Development

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In this module we think about whether a theory of mind is innate or whether it is something we develop over time. While children typically pass a test of false belief around the age of four, research has shown that even younger children demonstrate signs of a theory of mind if they are tested using a slightly different method. We discuss two different explanations for this: Firstly, the suggestion that children have a theory of mind from a young age and the test of false belief is simply an inadequate way of measuring this. Or, secondly, the proposition that children’s understanding of the internal states of others develops from an ‘implicit’ level in younger children to an ‘explicit’ level in older children. Finally, we evaluate the usefulness of both explanations using the principle of theoretical parsimony, i.e. the principle that a theory should always provide the simplest viable explanation.


In this course, Professor Peter Mitchell (University of Nottingham) discusses how we acquire a theory of mind, i.e. the ability to make inferences about the mental states of others. We begin, in module one, by exploring what we mean by the term ‘theory of mind’ and how it can be measured using a test of false belief. In module two, we discuss two rival theories of how we come to understand the thoughts and feelings of others before moving on, in module three, to think about whether a theory of mind is innate or developed over time. Modules four and five consider how our ability to understand the internal states of others may be influenced by the condition of autism and factors in our social environment, while module six explores how the development of a theory of mind varies across different cultures.


Peter Mitchell is Professor and Director of Studies in Psychology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. Previously, he was head of the School of Psychology on the University of Nottingham’s UK campus. He has published six books and is editor of the British Journal of Psychology. Professor Mitchell has served as Chair of the Developmental Section of the British Psychological Society and as Chief Examiner for the Economic and Social Research Council UK PhD studentship competition. Some of Professor Mitchell’s recent publications include ‘Autism and the double empathy problem: Implications for development and mental health’ (2020) and ‘Do neurotypical people like or dislike autistic people?’ (2021).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Mitchell, P. (2019, October 11). Cognition and Development – Theory of Mind - Theory of Mind and Development [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Mitchell, P. "Cognition and Development – Theory of Mind – Theory of Mind and Development." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 11 Oct 2019,

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