Sep 112009

There’s a famous experiment where you show a three year old kid a smarties tube and ask what they think is inside. They’ll probably say ‘smarties’. (Smarties =BrE chocolate sweets, rather like M&Ms) Then you open it, and show them there are pencils inside. Next you close it up again and ask, ‘If Mummy saw this tube, what would she think is inside?’ The three year old will probably say ‘pencils’. It won’t occur to them that Mummy might be fooled by the packaging in the same way that they were.

Try the same thing with a five year old and ask the same question, and most likely they’ll say there are smarties inside. So somewhere between the ages of 3 and 5 kids seem to work out that other people can have a different set of beliefs and understanding from their own, and they develop the ability to think about another’s thoughts.

I’m intrigued by how this theory of mind develops – or doesn’t develop. It has often been studied in relation to people on the autistic spectrum who may interpret remarks very literally. So for example, if someone asks ‘Is that your jacket on the floor?’ they might just think it’s an enquiry about whether the jacket belongs to them and fail to recognize a request to pick it up. Before we can begin to understand another speaker’s intentions, we have to understand that they can have beliefs and desires that are different from our own.

Scientists have identified the bit of the brain we use to think about the thoughts of others. I’ve just watched a video where I’ve learnt that this bit of our brains is also involved in making ethical judgments. It’s a talk by a neuroscientist, Rebecca Saxe, in which she describes how applying a magnetic pulse to the right temporal parietal junction can change our normal moral judgments – largely for the worse it seems. Here’s hoping Rebecca continues to refuse calls from the Pentagon.

 Posted by at 6:54 pm

  13 Responses to “Theory of mind”

  1. I don’t know if it’s the same process at work but i think there were experiments done with babies where someone suspended something (on a string) so that it was in their vision and then moved it to behind them.
    At an early age they would not try to find it but later they would look for it.
    By the way, one should ALWAYS check that Smartie tube for possible smarties.

  2. Ha! Why yes. It would be a great shame to miss possible smarties.
    There must have been some disappointed 3 year olds when the researchers revealed those pencils in the tube. Still, a little disappointment beats getting a magnetic pulse through your right temporal parietal junction, I guess.

  3. I’ve been thinking about Smarties and M&Ms – it’s all your fault- and i had to go and buy some.
    In fact there is a BIG difference _- Smarties have decided to only use natural colouring, M&Ms are running FIVE e-numbers!

  4. Yeah, I’m generally slow to make British vs American judgments. So often it’s a matter of ‘different’ rather than one being better or worse.

    But not in this case. Just wish I could buy smarties here because they are way better than M&Ms. In fact even the NYT seems to agree…

  5. ‘compressed ribbons of chocolate’

  6. So ….what is better?

    As a visitor only to the USA i would say

    1, turning right at traffic lights
    2. propositions on the ballot paper
    3. bike carriers on the front of buses
    4. transfer tickets on the bus
    5. ice cream

    Or are these particular to certain states only?

  7. “So for example, if someone asks ‘Is that your jacket on the floor?’ they might just think it’s an enquiry about whether the jacket belongs to them and fail to recognize a request to pick it up.”

    Do you know the “four ears theory by German psychologist Friedmann Schulz von Thun? (See . I’ve found him to be very helpful in analysing which messages we hear when someone speaks.

    According to von Thun, we pack 4 messages into each statement. E.g., when a mother says, “It’s nice of you to visit me again,” she means:
    1. Factual information: I’m enjoying your being here.
    2. Self-relevation: I am lonely when you’re not here.
    3. Relationship: You don’t visit me enough. 4. Appeal: Visit me more often.

  8. I’ve finished ALL the M&Ms i bought and ALL the Smarties and i have to report that the Smarties are NOTHING like they were when i was a kid in England – they have watered down the chocolate.
    Or maybe i grew bigger?

  9. Chris, maybe you just didn’t eat enough of them?

  10. Anne, thank you. No, I hadn’t heard of this at all. Searle gave us: directives, commissives, assertives, expressives and declarations, but this sounds intriguing on a more personal level.

  11. No disappointed 4 year-olds in this other famous test (for deferred gratification)) involving another type of sweets:

  12. Oh nice video. Thanks for sharing, Kati.

  13. Very interesting to know that the bit of the brain we use to think about the thoughts of others is also involved in making ethical judgements.Ethics have to do with de-centering : the center is not ourselves anymore, but the others.

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