Cowell et al. – Is lack of theory of mind a bad thing?

In their article entitled, “The Curious Relation between Theory of Mind and Sharing in Preschool Age Children,” the authors share an experiment they did where they compared preschool children’s success rate with a false belief test (a way of measuring Theory of Mind) with the amount of sharing.

The researchers put a child (I will use the pronoun she) into a room and gave her stickers.  They then showed her a bag and said that there was another child who was unable to be in the room.  That child would get as many stickers as she would give them.  The researcher then turned around so the child could choose how many stickers they wanted.

Their hypothesis was that if the child giving away the stickers had passed the false belief test (and had a higher Theory of Mind), then she would share more.  They thought this would be the case because Theory of Mind helps people to understand where other people are coming from and, thus, almost empathize with them and want to give them stickers.

This hypothesis turned out to be wrong.  What they found was the opposite was actually.  Those children who failed the false belief test gave more stickers than those who passed the test.

I find myself wondering “why is this” (Even though I am now about to figure out the answer…maybe)?  Theory of Mind, to define it in another way, is the ability to separate oneself from others.  My experiences are not your experiences, my thoughts are not your thoughts.  If you subscribe to this belief, then once I am able to separate myself from another person, I begin to move from thinking of them as extensions of myself (with thoughts and feelings like me) to they are separate beings from me.  In other words, is it possible that with theory of mind, we are moving from a posture of empathy to a posture of sympathy…or worse, pity?

If we look at the results of this study (which is one study, there might be more out there that actually say that this is not the case, I don’t know yet), why is lacking a theory of mind a bad thing?  People who lack a theory of mind are more apt to share things that they own.  But why is this?

Is it possible that because a person who lacks theory of mind sees that other person as themselves (they think like I think), then they know that if they were that person, they would want some stickers.  So basically, they put themselves into the position that they are affecting and think what they would want someone else to do.

I don’t think that makes sense the way I wrote it.  It makes sense in my head.  Basically, people who lack theory of mind think for other people (if I was in that position, I would want someone to do this), and so they do that.

So, now we have to ask: is empathy and sharing a bad thing?

Cowell, Jason M., Anya Samek, Jn List, and Jean Decety. “The Curious Relation between Theory of Mind and Sharing in Preschool Age Children.” PloS ONE 10.2 (Feb 2015): 1-8. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar 2015.


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