Durkin (1985) developed this path to a theory of mind and knowledge of others and argues that it involves distinguishing people from other things, discovering the characteristics of individuals, and finally learning that others have an independent psychological existence (a theory of mind). Unlike adults, infants have much less experience in distinguishing between people and other things. Piaget (1936) argued that children only became concerned with people and their differences from other people at the end of the first year.
However, many have argued that infants are interested in people from birth. People provide the most interesting stimulus. They have vivid facial expressions and sound producing devices, and provide food. However, this does not mean that infants are aware of people’s internal properties, such as feelings. Experiments by Richards (1974) show infants to be more responsive to a mother, adjusting their facial behaviour and looks, than to an inanimate object which was moving.
This appears valid only when mothers interact with the child, as Tronick et al’s (1978) experiments show, when a child does not “know” they are interacting with a person because they are not responsive and inanimate, the child clearly shows signs of distress and smiles less. An experiment by Feldman and Ruble (1981) suggests that children of a young age, although commenting less on the internal states of others that older children or adults, do make character assessments and attribute feelings to other children if a social motivational variable is introduced.
That is, when they anticipate future interaction with the other child. Once children begin to appreciate other’s character, they can see that it may be different from their own, shown, for example, in their expression of dislike for another child, and this is culminated in the acquisition of a theory of mind as they understand that other’s may hold views different from their own. However, at this juncture, it is important to note that the attainment of a theory of mind is not immediate, and just as gradually as children develop understanding of others in stages, their theory of mind is developed throughout their childhood.
Selman (1980) argues that it is not until 8 or 10 years old that a child can properly put themselves in a person’s place to really understand their intentions (which conflict with their own). Schaffer (1996) puts forward the argument that because children display empathy they are therefore not entirely egocentric until they acquire a theory of mind. Hoffman (1988) explains empathy as a four stage process, showing a developing precursor to children managing to attribute internal states to others.
The first level is global empathy whereby in the first year, children may replicate the emotion they witness, such as crying when another child is crying, however, Hoffman (1988) argues that the emotion is “involuntary and undifferentiated”. The second level is egocentric empathy when children offer help to those in distress, help which they would find comforting themselves. Third is empathy for another’s feelings; children have developed role-taking skills initiated by make believe play, as argued by Harris and are more aware that other people can have different feelings that the child’s own.
Therefore their responses to distress are more suited to the other person’s needs. This is the final stage in the development of empathy. This coincides with the attainment of a theory of mind. Empathy for another’s life condition occurs by late childhood and they can appreciate that the person’s distress may stem from earlier experience and not just the immediate situation; and can also be found with respect to entire groups of people, the poor for example, enforcing this idea.
The research on empathy shows that, from a very early age, children do have a capacity for the appreciation of other people as thinking and feeling individuals. Studies by Bretherton and Beeghly (1982) show that children’s spontaneous talk about other people’s internal states leads to the same conclusion. From the third year children are more aware of other people’s emotions and can comment on their motivations. For example, the excerpt “you sad, Mummy. What Daddy do?
Shows a child’s discussion of how his or another person’s state has been caused or changed. Examples such as this show that children cannot therefore be completely egocentric as they appear aware that another person may be experiencing feelings different from their own. Theory of mind (TOM) is the intuitive ability we develop through early childhood to know that others have a different point of view to our own. No other species, as far as we know, can ‘put itself in someone else’s shoes’ to see how they might be feeling to the same extent that we can.
To take it a step further, from putting ourselves in the place of another we can predict certain courses of events. TOM is not just interpreting how another behaves but how they think, so for example one does not just understand that if someone puts their hand on an iron they will pull it away quickly afterwards, but that in touching it the other has felt pain from the heat of the iron and therefore has moved the hand so it is no longer touching the source of pain.
If you see someone else getting too close to an iron it immediately runs through your head what might happen next: that is one example of TOM. Another might be that although someone is smiling the person they are talking to knows they are really trying to hide their true feelings. TOM enables the ‘person’ singular to share feelings with, and understand, others, and consequently become part of an interacting social group rather than just an individual (Wellman, 1990).