Theory of Mind: A Tale of Mental Mischief

A lot of smart psychologists, with way too much time on their hands, have spent time speculating about
Theory of Mind in general, and the autism, in particular. A 1978 study by David Premack and Woodruff titled “Does the chimpanzee have a Theory of Mind? started it all. In the study, a chimp named Sarah observed a video of an actor trying to solve a problem… reaching for bananas with a stick. After th
e video was turned off, the Chimp was shown two pictures of the actor trying two ways of solving the problem. Sarah reliably chose the picture corresponding to the better solution. P&W assumed this meant Sarah assumed the actor’s motives. What followed was a great deal of mischief and speculation, eventually focusing upon children with autism. You can’t believe how many people have spent years messing with this, to no practical consequence whatsoever.

In a remarkably insightful article, pardon the pun, C.M. Heyes (1998) showed that all of the studies claiming to show primates have mental understanding of other’s thoughts or motives are seriously flawed. Professor Heyes concluded, “The idea that primates have a theory of mind is important and intriguing, and a great deal of careful labor has been devoted to its investigation. Therefore, it can be disappointing and irritating to be reminded that there are other, less exciting explanations for the reported data, especially when the recognition of these other possibilities requires close examination of methodology. It can seem as if elegantly bold ideas are meeting carpingly narrow objections, and in such a contest our instincts, or at least my instincts, are not to shout for the methodologists. But it is precisely because Premack and Woodruff’s question is important and intrigu- ing that it warrants a reliable answer; and without some sober reflection, acknowledging the limitations of current research, we may never know whether nonhuman primates have a theory of mind.” In other words Chimps and other primates don’t think about what others are thinking, even though it’s fun to assume they do.

In 1985 Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith conducted the
Sally and Ann False Belief Test using dolls as the characters in a skit. They tested children autism, others with Down Syndrome and a third group of typical comparison children. In the skit, two little girl dolls, Sally and Ann are in a room as well as a basket covered by a blanket and a box with a cover. Sally puts her ball in the basket and covers it with the blanket while Ann watches. Sally leaves the room while Ann remains behind. While Sally is gone, Ann takes the ball out of the basket, replacing the blanket, and places the ball in the box and closes the cover. Sally returns. Question: Where will Sally look for the ball. Most typically developing kids over 4 years of age say she will look in the basket where Sally had originally placed, while most children with autism will say Sally will look in the box where Ann moved the ball. In other words they are n
ot able to separate their own belief about the reality of the situation (Ann placed the ball in the box) from Sally’s point of view, i.e. she had placed it in the basket.

The tendency to assume another person’s perspective has been mistakenly called “Theory of Mind.” I say mistakenly because it isn’t a theory at all. A theory is an idea based on objective premises and conclusions following rules of logic. No one believes young children with autism or typically developing children have such a theory, nor do Chimps as far as anyone can tell. The only way in which the word “theory” is involved, is in the common sense every day idea that a theory is some explanation for an event that you can’t see happening, like what might be going on in another person’s mind. That isn’t what a theory, though some people get a kick out talking about it as though a theory is involved.

There are problems with this test. Simon Baron Cohen has consistently argued that this inability of children with autism to accurately predict Ann’s behavior is due specifically to a social deficit related to understanding of others’ motives and beliefs. Grant, Riggs and Bocher tested this idea in a study titled,
Counterfactual and mental state reasoning in children with autism published in 2004. They found that impaired performance on standard false-belief tasks in autism is associated with limited competence with physical tasks which do not require either an understanding of social beliefs (or some of its component skills), plus defective competence in inferential reasoning, but that impaired performance is not caused by an inadequate understanding of belief. In other words, the deficit is largely difficulty with inferential reasoning.

Years ago my wife Anneke Thompson was tutoring a pre-teenage boy with high functioning autism. It had just begun sprinkling outdoors but the rain was not yet visible from inside the window. A man walked by outdoors along the sidewalk and she asked the student why the man was holding an umbrella. Despite being otherwise very bright, the student had no idea. Perhaps the deficit was lack of understanding of human behavior when it rains, but he had no ability to inferentially reason why the man was holding an umbrella. Now try showing the same youngster two pictures, one of a house with a chimney with smoke coming out, and the second a similar house with a chimney but no smoke emanating from the house. In both cases we make certain trees or other seasonal cues are removed. It is very likely the young man with autism would also have trouble answering the question,
Why is Smoking Coming Out of The Chimney of This House but Not That House?, such as one is in the winter or that the weather is cold and the other is in warm weather. Inferential reasoning requires a great deal of practice. I presented an analysis of the conditions required to give rise to the kind of skills that permit a child with autism to “pass” the Sally-Ann false belief test, as well as display other self-awareness skills [Thompson (2008)] .

Schlinger (2009) in reviewing theory of mind stated “Spradlin and Brady (2008) listed three requirements for a child to succeed on the false belief task. First, she must observe where Maxi initially placed the object. Second, she must remember where the object was placed. And third, she must have observed that people usually look for objects where they placed them or were seen last. Concerning the last requirement, Spradlin and Brady explained:

The child from a well organized home will have had numerous opportunities to observe that other people look for objects where they placed them. If the child observes the mother place the jelly jar in the pantry, the mother will generally look for the jam jar in the pantry. Moreover, the child will have had numerous opportunities to place objects and look for them. Most often, looking where one placed the object will be reinforced. Less frequently, a child may have seen someone place an object in one place and have someone else move the object and then observe the first person look for the object where he/she initially placed it. Probably more frequently, the child will have had personal experience in placing an object in one place and having a sibling or parent place the object somewhere else. (p. 345)”

The long and short of it is that failure to exhibit
Theory is Mind in autism is a misnomer that refers to difficulty with more complex inferential reasoning among children who lack relevant experience. Inferential reasoning in the Sally-Anne test involves responding to c
ues to which children with autism seldom attend, such as facial expressions including stimuli arising from eyes, and understanding and imitation of motor movements, it would make sense such children would have difficulties. Until children with autism are explicitly taught that those cues are important, they fail to attend to them. No theory is involved whatsoever. As English psychologist Alan Costall and a colleague wrote, “Theory of Mind is now…not so much a theory, more a way of life”

Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A.M., & Frith, U.  (1985) Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’?  Cognition, 21, 37-46

Costall, A. and Leudar, I. (2007) Getting Over “the problem of other minds”: Communication in Context. Infant Behavior & Development. 30:289-95.

Premack, D. and Woodruff, G.(1978) Does the chimpanzee have a Theory of Mind? Behavioral Brain Sciences, 1, 515-526

Grant, CM, Riggs, KJ, and Boucher, J. (2004) Counterfactual and mental state reasoning in children with autism. J. Autism and Developmental Disorders. 34: 177-88.

Heyes, CM (1998) Theory of mind in nonhuman primates. Behavior and Brain Sciences, 21: 101-48.

Schlinger, H.D. (2009) Theory of Mind: An overview and Behavioral Perspective. The Psychological Record, 2009, 59, 435–448.

Spradlin, J. E., & Brady, N. (2008). A behavior analytic interpretation of theory of mind. International Journal of Psychology and Psychotherapy, 8, 335–350.

Thompson, T. (2008) Self-Awareness: Behavior analysis and neuroscience. The Behavior Analyst. 31: 137-144.