Recent research project: Stability and Continuity in the Development of Theory of Mind in Middle Childhood.

Trajectories and Predictors of DevelopmentOne of the main social competences important in the modern world is the ability to understand the behaviours of other people with whom we act together in complex social situations. Both efficient cooperation and competition are possible when we correctly interpret the desires, intentions or beliefs of other people. This competence is known in sciences as theory of mind. Developmental psychologists have proved that even 1-year-old children demonstrate a remarkable ability to pay attention to the goals of the actions of others, and this ability becomes a foundation of formation of further important competences. For example, young children playing with a toy together with an adult who then leaves, know when they then receive another to play with that when the adult returns his/her surprise refers to the toy he/she is not familiar with. In another experiment, it has been shown that even before children reach the age of 2 they know that an adult might have different desires and preferences from them (e.g. likes broccoli more than crackers). However, not until the age of 4 do children solve tasks requiring conclusions on someone’s knowledge and beliefs (so-called false belief tests). Such complicated thinking about what another person thinks and knows develops intensively at the end of pre-school age (middle childhood).

The first objective of the research planned in our project is to describe the developmental changes in theory of mind in children aged 5, 6 and 7. This will make it possible not only to determine how theory of mind develops in general, in all children – whether it is continual development, or whether some sudden, irregular changes take place – but also to present individual paths, i.e. the so-called trajectories of theory of mind development in this period. The children participating in our project have already been tested on six occasions, between the ages of 1 and 3 and a half, and therefore in the continuation of our research we will be able to identify whether, for example, a child who at 1 year old was considerably ahead of his/her peers in early theory of mind retains this fast path of development at 5 or 7, or whether there were periods of a lack of increase in competences.

Our second aim is to answer the question of what are the conditions or important factors in theory of mind development in children. By testing children’s other competences – e.g. their language skills, intelligence, memory or ability to reason – we will check to what extent these factors affect the change in theory of mind. We believe that the most important element that conditions development of theory of mind is a child’s interaction and way of communicating with both adults and peers. In our project, we therefore construct tests in which the child has the opportunity to read someone’s thoughts and beliefs while playing or solving a task together with the other person. By watching what the child points at, pays attention to, and asks about, we can learn how he/she cognises the social world, and in particular the world of the minds of other people.

From the point of view of the science of developmental psychology, our project seeks to answer very fundamental questions of the nature of early, and then advanced theory of mind, and what influences its development. In other words, we ask when and under which influence such manifestations of advanced theory of mind as understanding non-literal messages, metaphors or homonyms and synonyms appear in children. It would appear that participation in a discussion, learning the points of view of another person, what that person is really thinking when, for example, he/she asks us a question are situations in which theory of mind develops. At the same time, its development means that we can function increasingly competently in a further conversation or, for instance, in a situation when a teacher asks a child a question about something he/she already knows. Success in school is probably also success in coping in a complex social situation, in which a child has to consider – often at the same time – points of view presented to him/her: what the teacher asked about, what a friend answered and what the child knows about the subject. Studying theory of mind in children at the end of pre-school age can therefore provide pointers on how to support the development of social competences in children.

Previous research project: The birth and development of the mentalizing ability

The project aims at describing the developmental sequence of the manifestation of the mentalizing ability and the identification of the individual and social determinants of its development. In defining the mentalizing ability as the ability to recognize and to take the mental states of others into account in one’s own behaviour , we acknowledge that some aspects of the mentalizing ability emerge earlier in the development and become fundamentals for the successive ones. The argument is based on evidence accumulated in recent years, which questioned the hitherto findings that children understand other people as mental beings not until the age of four. In recent years researchers have revealed that also infants and toddlers recognize and take some aspects of other people’s mentality into account. We assume the existence of relations between the early manifestation of the mentalizing ability, such as the level of engagement in joint attention, recognizing and producing pointing gestures in one-year-olds, and later emerging in the development of understanding of emotion and desire, engagement in joint action and pretence, and finally of understanding false beliefs. Thanks to repeated testing of a large sample of children (the first testing at 12, and subsequent at 18, 24, 30, 36 and 42 months old) we will be able to describe the “ontogenetic zero” in the development of the mentalizing ability, create characteristics of the typical development of the mentalizing ability in children between 12 and 42 months old and reveal the determinants of that development. The development of the scale of the mentalizing ability enabling a reliable and valid measurement in children between 12 months to 3.5 years old, will be an outcome of the project. As the first instrument of its kind in Poland, it may become helpful in the diagnosis of developmental disorders from the autistic spectrum.

The issues being investigated within the framework of the project feature among the most important in the humanities and belong to basic research. How humans are able to recognize and understand mental states has been thoroughly investigated in philosophy, academic psychology, and folk psychology. The mentalizing ability is acknowledged as the essence of human nature and a distinctive feature of homo sapiens. The examination of the classic problem of “other minds” from the developmental psychology point of view, that is study how children, on the basis of observation of behaviour, gradually begin to recognize and understand that the behaviour is directed by a person’s mental states, is an effective way of providing answers to questions of that kind. The longitudinal inquiry of the development of the mentalizing ability catches the essence of the problem of other minds because it verifies when and owing to what kind of abilities children begin to take factors which are not observable in behaviour. into account. Conducting research on preverbal infants or on infants who have just begun acquiring language enables us to reveal the relation between the level of nonverbal communicative competences, the level of early social cognition abilities and the understanding of other’s epistemic states expressed in language, such as knowledge and beliefs. Disclosing relations between the level of nonverbal abilities, such as 1) coordinating interactions, 2) analysing and interpreting other’s behaviour on a common ground, 3) understanding and fulfilling roles in play and joint action, 4) recognizing emotions and desires, 5) engaging in pretence, and the age of the appearance and the level of abilities to understand other’s knowledge and beliefs, provides substantial findings related to the development of the mentalizing ability. The identification of determinants of the mentalizing ability, such as a child’s individual features (level of development of executive functions, language abilities and temperament), social determinants (characteristic of the mother, that is maternal mind-mindness and ways of interacting with the child, the existence of older siblings) and additional determinants such as the parents’ educational level and socio-economic status of family will be essential to the formulated explanations.

Due to the scope of the project, which is unique not only to Polish, but also to world developmental psychology (three years long longitudinal research of a large sample of children which investigate many aspects of the mentalizing ability and its determinants), it becomes possible to take part in the ongoing debate in the field about the development and the functioning of the mentalizing ability. The scope of the project enables the existence of different, individual paths of development which may lead to a similar level of the mind’s understanding and paths which lead to deficits in this ability to be revealed.

Research undertaken in the project be of a basic nature, which implies an influence on civilization. The collected evidence will provide knowledge about the functioning and the determinants of the mentalizing ability and will thus contribute to the specification of one of the distinctive feature of human beings. Due the fact that the investigated ability takes part in cultural learning, the acquiring of symbolic communication, the coordination of social interaction, and as a consequence in the effective participation in social and cultural life, it is difficult to overestimate the benefits resultant from its examination.

Social benefits will stem from realization of the project. The description of the typical development of the mentalizing ability, the elaboration of instruments and the creation of a reliable and valid scale of its measurement, will serve in the diagnosis of developmental disorders in early childhood. Accumulated knowledge of the specification and the determinants of the optimal development of the mentalizing ability will be useful in the creation programs of early intervention and the modification of the functioning of children with identified disorders. The dissemination of the findings related to the development of the understanding of other people among physicians, paediatricians, practical psychologists and employees of day nurseries and kindergartens, will bring an measurable advantage to society.