As An Autist, Is My Lack Of Theory Of Mind The Reason I’m Susceptible To Abuse?

Theory Of Mind

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs different from one’s own (Peyroux, Elodie, et al.).


Theory of mind is known by many different names in the academic literature, including folk psychology, mentalizing, mental state attribution, theory of mind (TOM), cognitive empathy, social cognition, interpersonal perception, and judgment of behaviour. However, the terms used to describe this phenomenon vary in their specificity. While some authors use “theory of mind” in reference to processes involved in perceiving or inferring another person’s mental state, other authors are more generalist in using the term “theory of mind” for all of the processes involved in social cognition.

According to some accounts, the theory of mind is a cognitive activity that involves imagining how another person might feel or think about their surroundings and themselves. In this view, theory of mind as a cognitive process has been defined as “the ability to discriminate between animate and inanimate objects; rationally classify living things based on biological criteria such as the ability to move oneself purposefully; attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and understand that others have beliefs different than one’s own” (Astington & Jenkins, 1999). Not all theorists agree with these descriptions of the role of belief-desire reasoning in the theory of mind. Some argue that belief-desire reasoning is only one component of folk psychology that provides just one way of predicting and explaining behaviour (Lillard, 2001).


Theory of mind abilities emerges by around four years of age when children can attribute different mental states, such as thoughts, desires, pretending, knowledge, and false beliefs, to themselves vs others (Wellman & Lagattuta, 2000). The earliest recorded use of “theory of mind” in the published literature dates back to a paper written in 1944 by George Orwell. In his essay entitled ” Politics and the English Language,” Orwell refers to the theory of mind with regard to personality traits. “Personality,” he writes, is “only a word…and it is almost entirely meaningless…so long as we are prevented from examining the activity of the ego.” In this quote, Orwell is referring to a concept very similar to the theory of mind – one’s understanding of his or her own personality traits as well as the ability to infer the presence of these same traits in others.

The development of a mature theory of mind is thought to be reliant upon cognitive processes such as attention and memory. There has been much research devoted to understanding these processes and how they might underlie children’s emerging abilities in the theory of mind. For example, Moore and onlooking adults falsely reported that an experimenter was out of sight when children failed at an object-choice task. Children as young as four years old could imitate deceptive behaviour, suggesting that they understood that their own thoughts, but not their visual perceptions, were private. False-belief understanding has been linked to the development of working memory, which begins developing around age two and continues to develop over the course of childhood (Gathercole & Baddeley, 1990; Gopnik, 2000).


Theory of mind is crucial for successful social interaction because it allows individuals to effectively interpret others’ behaviour as intentional. This, in turn, underlies much of our everyday communication about others’ motivations and also facilitates our ability to empathize with others. The development of the theory of mind abilities appears related to executive functioning skills, including inhibition ( Diamond & Taylor, 1996), cognitive flexibility (Astington & Baird, 2005), and planning (Luna et al., 2001). For example, the inhibition of one’s own desires and feelings appears necessary to effectively attribute feelings and knowledge to others (Hala et al., 2003; Moore & Frye, 1997).

These executive functions appear to be particularly important when it comes to comprehending deceptive messages. For example, when children were asked how a story character would feel about a second character who had been given her hat by mistake, 3-year-olds typically named the emotion that the girl in the story would feel, without considering that she might also want to keep someone else’s hat. In contrast, 4-year-olds could take into consideration both their own desires as well as another person’s beliefs when making this inference (Laroche, Perruchet, & Tardif, 2003).


Theory of mind is not fully developed until around 8-years-of-age. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the development of the theory of mind may continue into adolescence (Lillard, 2001; Mitchell et al., 2005). There are even some suggestions that theory of mind skills might be improved by playing first-person video games. For example, Green and Bavelier (2011) found improved performance on a false belief task following 10 hours of action game training. The authors suggest possible connections between action game playing and improvements in attentional capacities as well as enhanced mental rotation skills, both of which have been linked to successful performance on measuring false belief understanding (see De Lisi & Blader, 2000).

However, understanding that other people have a different perspective does not always mean that one is going to take this different perspective into account when interacting with someone else. For example, a manager might understand his employees’ perspectives and adapt his behaviour accordingly – but choose not to do so because taking the others’ perspective may be unappealing or require too much effort (Mayer, 2008).


In addition to improving our ability to communicate about others’ thoughts and feelings as well as empathize with them, the theory of mind also enables us to deceive successfully. This can happen either intentionally or unintentionally through miscommunication. Children as young as three years old were able to succeed in order to conceal their own intentions (Lewis, Freeman, Kyriakidou, Maridaki-Kassotaki, & Berridge, 1996). These children were also able to infer what a person who had access to different information would believe about a situation. For example, when shown a trick involving an empty box and covered basket, three-year-old children could correctly infer that someone looking at the scene from another perspective would think that there was still candy in the basket (but there really wasn’t) (Onishi & Baillargeon, 2005).

Once individuals can attribute mental states like thoughts and beliefs to themselves and others, they will inevitably start trying to influence others’ behaviours. This may be done either directly through overt communication or more subtly by controlling information in order to change the other person’s beliefs. Understanding false beliefs have been shown to be an integral part of engaging in these kinds of social interactions (e.g., Astington, Jenkins, & Olson, 2014).


Sophisticated use of the theory of mind skills may even enable individuals to mask their own desires or intentions when communicating with others and mislead them into thinking that they actually share these views (Baron-Cohen, Tager-Flusberg, & Cohen, 1993; Fletcher et al., 1995; Ganea et al., 2008). For example, individuals might attempt to deceive through omissions – leaving out crucial information – or by providing information that is literally true but intentionally. A politician lying about his military service and verbally agreeing with his voters’ point of view is a good example.

Deception can be costly if other people discover that they have been deceived because it could damage relationships or severely limit social interactions (Lewis et al., 1996; Vrij, Edward, Roberts, & Bull, 2002). Understanding other’s beliefs, as well as how these beliefs might differ from our own, may enable us to avoid deception by others and deceive them more successfully ourselves. Furthermore, understanding other people’s false beliefs enables us to predict their actions better and thus achieve an advantage over them. In addition, this also helps individuals to monitor the honesty of other people in order to detect deceitful behaviour early on (Sip et al., 2012).


Theory of mind is integral to the development of personal beliefs and values, which enables children to develop their own thoughts on morality and social conventions. This helps them adapt better to different cultural contexts (Hoffman, 2000). However, the theory of mind skills may not be equally distributed among all individuals. For example, people with autism spectrum disorder tend to struggle with inferring other people’s intentions and emotions (Baron-Cohen et al., 1993; Tager-Flusberg & Sullivan, 1995). Some researchers believe that this condition is linked to deficits in understanding others’ false beliefs (Astington & Jenkins, 1999; Baron-Cohen et al., 1993).

There are still many questions surrounding the theory of mind that need to be answered. For example, it is still unknown exactly when humans begin to comprehend other people’s false beliefs. One study has suggested that the ability to understand others’ false beliefs emerges around four years of age (Onishi & Baillargeon, 2005). However, there is also some evidence that this skill develops later in childhood, around seven years of age (He & Southgate, 2006). Another important question concerns the extent of our understanding of other people’s thoughts. Some theorists have suggested that individuals are only able to hold a small number of mental concepts in their working memory at once – roughly three or four (Gernsbacher, 1990; Gernsbacher, Goldsmith, & Robertson, 1992 This could mean that children will have a difficult time understanding other people’s false beliefs if their current belief is incorrect.


In order to properly investigate the theory of mind, it is important for researchers not only to study the behaviour and thoughts of humans but also those of non-human primates. Primates have been shown to understand both simple and complex ideas about other individuals’ minds (Hare & Tomasello, 2004; Hare et al., 2000). In addition, they are able to anticipate others’ actions by recognizing that these will be independent of their own volition (Melis, Hare, & Tomasello, 2006). For example, chimpanzees may block an attempt by a partner to gain access to a food source even though this comes at a cost for the chimpanzee him- or herself (Hare & Tomasello, 2004). This is known as tactical deception because the chimpanzee anticipates that his partner will attempt to gain access to the food source and takes action in order to prevent this from happening. In addition, some non-human primates have been shown to be capable of attributing false beliefs more flexibly than human children. For instance, Imanishi (2000) found that after a chimpanzee watched a video showing two individuals attempting to move an object at the same time – one successfully and one unsuccessfully – several hours later, the chimpanzee was able to identify which individual had a correct belief about where the object was located rather than simply opting for whichever individual performed a successful action.

Theory of Mind is a complex facet of cognition that enables us to understand others’ mental states – their desires, beliefs, and feelings. Theory of Mind is therefore crucial for anticipating how other people will act in the future and adapting social interactions accordingly. Researchers are still researching different aspects of the theory of mind, including when this skill first emerges during development as well as what triggers it.
Additionally, there are questions concerning the extent to which individuals can understand other people’s belief states. While some non-human primates have shown an ability to flexibly attribute false beliefs, chimpanzees show greater understanding than human children do at certain stages during development.

What About Me?

As an Autist, is my lack of theory of mind a reason why I am susceptible to abuse? Seems to me like it is…

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