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Theory Theory

I have already briefly described one of the major theoretical positions with respect to theory of mind: the theory theory view. The label for this position does not reflect the fact (to quote a book review by James Russell, 1992) that the theory was “so good they named it twice.” The label, rather, reflects the central tenet of the approach: namely, that children’s knowledge about the mind takes the form of an informal theory and that developmental change therefore takes the form of theory change.

In what ways are children’s beliefs theory-like? Clearly, not in all the ways that scientific theories are theory-like. Children’s beliefs are not embodied in formal language, they are not (at least usually) objects of conscious reflection, and they do not undergo testing by a larger scientific community. But they do have some theory-like qualities. They have a specific domain to which they are directed, and they identify specific entities within that domain—in this case, the mental world and various mental entities. These entities, as the Premack and Woodruff (1978) passage quoted earlier in this chapter indicates, are not observable; rather they are themselves theoretical postulates. Thus to think about the mental world, the child must make a basic, ontological distinction between physical objects (external, perceptible, tangible) and mental representations (internal, invisible). Furthermore, theories not only identify entities; they also specify cause-and-effect relations among the entities—relations, for example, between desire satisfaction and emotion or between perceptual experience and belief. Because they identify such cause-and-effect relations, theories can be used for predictive and explanatory purposes—in the present case, to make sense of people’s behavior. And because they are modifiable by experience, theories change as experience provides evidence that an existing theory is not satisfactory.

Different theorists have proposed somewhat different versions of the theory approach. The most fully developed and influential versions are those by Josef Perner (e.g., Perner, 1991, 1995) and Henry Wellman and Alison Gopnik (e.g., Gopnik & Wellman, 2012; Wellman, 2014).

 
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