Theory of Mind, specialized capacity or emergent property?

E.H.M. Sterck, S. Begeer

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Theory of Mind (ToM), the cognitive capacity to attribute emotions, intentions and knowledge to oneself and others, has been claimed a hallmark of human cognition. Nonetheless, ToM is considered limited in young children and people with autism. Moreover, its presence in animals is much investigated, and hotly debated. For cross-disciplinary discussions and real insight in this unique capacity it is essential to know what constitutes ToM. We aim to tackle this question by combining insights from three different scientific fields that study ToM: animal behaviour, typical child development and developmental disorders such as autism and AD/HD. In this introductory paper, we will first discuss different theoretical views of ToM: that it can be considered a specialized capacity or an emergent property. Essential features of these views will be deduced and predictions will be derived. Subsequently, we review how ToM is studied in the three discussed fields and how this relates to these theoretical views. After that we will review the contributions to this special issue and discuss how they relate to the different predictions. Last, we will combine the evidence and propose our view on what constitutes ToM. The data are more consistent with the view that ToM is an emergent capacity. The employment of ToM appears to depend on the functioning of its constituting capacities, represented mental states and context factors. A focus on the ingredients that contribute to and allow the expression and employment of ToM will enable us to start understanding when and how individuals, whether human or nonhuman, deal with the minds of others. © 2010 Psychology Press.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalEuropean Journal of Developmental Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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