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Theory of Mind. 

“Theory of Mind” refers to the ability of most humans to imagine, at least to a degree, what another person is likely to do based on their knowledge of what the other person knows. Here is a simple test used to determine whether someone has this ability. 

You are the “subject” being tested and you are in a room with me (the “experimenter”). Your friend Vlad is in the room too. In full view of you and Vlad, I hide a giant luscious chocolate chip cookie (such as you might purchase from Panera, but won’t because you realize that if you buy it there is no way you aren’t going to eat it!). I “hide” this cookie in the top drawer of my desk. Now, Vlad walks out of the room. He’s well out of sight. Now, I take the cookie out of my drawer, and using great self-control, do not eat the cookie myself but instead put it in my pocket. 

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Now, I turn to you and ask, “When Vlad comes back, where will he look for the cookie?” If you are 2, 3, or 4 years old, you would say, “In your pocket!” I rephrase this a few times to make sure you understand that I am not asking you where the cookie actually is but where Vlad will search. You again insist that Vlad will look in my pocket. At such a young age, kids do not distinguish their state of knowledge from someone else’s. Most adults will have no problem with this task. They have a “theory of mind” that allows them to know that their state of knowledge is not the same as Vlad’s. Some adults diagnosed with autism will have trouble with this task however.

An interesting question arises as to whether other animals have a “theory of mind.” It is not a settled question. My purpose here however, is to explain what the term means and show how it’s useful for humans. Despite the fact that most adult humans have the capacity to do “theory of mind” tasks and that it is useful, they nonetheless often fail to evoke their capacity.

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A closely related concept is “empathy.” Empathy generally refers to being able to feel what another person feels emotionally. I see the distinction as one of perspective or emphasis rather than two different entities. These two concepts (empathy and Theory of Mind) are explored in much greater detail in the “Myths of the Veritas” series in this blog. For now, suffice it to say that you might empathize with another person by relating to their facial expressions, posture, or regarding what they say and how they say it. You might see a picture of a small, terrified four-year old alone in a cage and know that they are terrified without having any verified knowledge or detailed knowledge of what they “know” or “don’t know.” They might or might not know any English. And you might or might not know their language or even what their language is. But you can tell that they are in great distress just by looking at them. If you actually feel what it is like to be a small child separated from your parents and being trapped in a cage in a strange place, that is generally called “empathy.” 


If I were to ask you what kind of pleading this four year old is likely to make in court, if you have  the capacity for a “Theory of Mind,” you might well ask, “Well…I don’t know. What do they know about courts or proceedings? What could they know? They are only four years old.”  You’d be correct, of course, to question whether it was meaningful to have a four year old acting for themselves in court. This would be particularly true if they had to plead in a court where they were unfamiliar with the culture, the venue, and the language. But even a really smart four year old who had been brought up in America and spoke excellent English would not be capable of really understanding the consequences. This kind of understanding demonstrates a deeper theory of mind than simply knowing that because a specific piece of information is in your own head doesn’t mean it’s in someone else’s head. 

In The Myths of the Veritas, people are given a range of tasks that involve what is called empathy. To me, although one can draw a conceptual distinction between understanding another person’s knowledge and feeling an echo of another person’s feelings, when it comes to many practical situations, it’s more important to put oneself in another person’s shoes, than to correctly label the process. 

Writers must often deal with multi-level theories of mind. There is what the writer knows about the events that are being written about in a story. There are the spheres of knowledge that various characters have. Most often, different characters have critically different states of knowledge. What the reader knows is yet again different. And all of these spheres of knowledge change throughout the course of the narrative. 

In The Myths of the Veritas, for example, the author knows throughout that ALT-R is making POND MUD put his face in the mud purely to humiliate him and keep power over him. ALT-R knows it as well. Over time, most readers will come to the same conclusion but not necessarily at exactly the same place in the narrative. Most of the Veritas tribe initially know nothing about this incident, but She-Of-Many-Paths intuits it and eventually many of the Veritas come to understand it. At first POND MUD is fairly certain ALT-R saved his life by making him do it. But as he observes and interacts with ALT-R and others, he begins to doubt that and then goes about actively seeking information from others that would help clarify ALT-R’s true motives. 


In Othello, the writer knows from the beginning that Iago is an evil sociopath. The audience knows quite early that Iago is an evil sociopath and learns more about his schemes through speeches that Iago delivers directly to the audience. Othello himself, on the other hand, has his state of “knowledge” manipulated by Iago. The audience knows that Othello is being duped by Iago but Othello himself does not know of it or of Desdemona’s innocence when he murders her though at that point, the writer, the audience, Desdemona, Iago, Cassio and other characters all know that Desdemona is innocent. We have some sympathy for Othello because we realize that he is operating on false information. 

Let’s turn to a happier piece of fiction, The Gift of the Magi by O’Henry (William Sydney Porter). In this story, a couple with financial struggles each gives up their most prized possession to buy a gift for the other. The functional value of the gifts is destroyed by what they gave up. Della knows that Jim’s most prized possession is his gold watch so she sells her beautiful hair to get money to buy him a watch chain. Jim knows that Della’s most prized possession is her beautiful hair so he sells his watch in order to buy her some jeweled combs for her hair. Of course, the real gifts they give are not diminished by their being no longer functional. The real gift is the gift of love. The author obviously knows all this from the beginning. Readers “catch on” to what is happening at various points in the narrative, but Jim and Della are the last to learn of the full irony. 

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Sadly, many people seem not to bother trying to understand the situation and capabilities of others. In one of the simplest cases, people are apparently unable to understand how very basic physical properties of the universe result in various people having various states of knowledge. On the tennis court, in a “friendly game,” the players themselves make the calls and keep track of the score. The server is supposed to announce the score before every serve. Some people actually “announce” the score by saying it so softly that only they can hear it! 

In other cases, novice drivers will follow a semi truck so closely that the truck drive cannot see the car behind them. Another trick of drivers is to turn their blinkers on – but only as they begin making the turn. In another post, I explain how one person’s driving behavior in “stop and go traffic” can influence many other people’s. In particular, if you leave a large space between your car and the one in front of you, it makes it easier for many people around you to drive more smoothly because they have a much more complete view of what is happening in front of them. 

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A more subtle failure in “Theory of Mind” occurs when a person assumes that everyone is motivated in the same way that they are. For example, a person may be so partisan that they will always defend and promote people in their own political party no matter how heinous the crimes of that person. This is an error, but a concomitant error is that such people assume everyone who doesn’t defend the criminal, and certainly anyone who actively resists such a crooked politician is doing so from a purely partisan perspective because that’s what they would do. Sociopaths who cheat may assume that everyone would cheat and the only reason they don’t cheat is because those non-cheaters are not smart enough to get away with it. 

When teamwork is operating at a high level, whether it’s hockey, soccer, tennis doubles, basketball, families, or design teams, people exhibit excellent “Theory of Mind” skills. How are yours? Have you experienced such high functioning teams? How can you improve your skills at “Theory of Mind”? 

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