Perspectives on Perspective Taking: How Children Think About the Minds of Others

Adv Child Dev Behav. 2017:52:185-226. doi: 10.1016/bs.acdb.2016.10.005. Epub 2016 Dec 23.


Perspective taking, or "theory of mind," involves reasoning about the mental states of others (e.g., their intentions, desires, knowledge, beliefs) and is called upon in virtually every aspect of human interaction. Our goals in writing this chapter were to provide an overview of (a) the research questions developmental psychologists ask to shed light on how children think about the inner workings of the mind, and (b) why such research is invaluable in understanding human nature and our ability to interact with, and learn from, one another. We begin with a brief review of early research in this field that culminated in the so-called litmus test for a theory of mind (i.e., false-belief tasks). Next, we describe research with infants and young children that created a puzzle for many researchers, and briefly mention an intriguing approach researchers have used to attempt to "solve" this puzzle. We then turn to research examining children's understanding of a much broader range of mental states (beyond false beliefs). We briefly discuss the value of studying individual differences by highlighting their important implications for social well-being and ways to improve perspective taking. Next, we review work illustrating the value of capitalizing on children's proclivity for selective social learning to reveal their understanding of others' mental states. We close by highlighting one line of research that we believe will be an especially fruitful avenue for future research and serves to emphasize the complex interplay between our perspective-taking abilities and other cognitive processes.

Keywords: Cognitive development; Cognitive processes; Curse of knowledge; False belief; Hindsight bias; Individual differences; Perspective taking; Social cognition; Social learning; Theory of mind.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Development*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Culture
  • Deception
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Infant
  • Peer Group
  • Personal Construct Theory*
  • Problem Solving
  • Rejection, Psychology
  • Social Learning
  • Theory of Mind*
  • Thinking*