What Do Theory-of-Mind Tasks Actually Measure? Theory and Practice

Perspect Psychol Sci. 2020 Mar;15(2):384-396. doi: 10.1177/1745691619896607. Epub 2020 Feb 18.


In recent decades, the ability to represent others' mental states (i.e., theory of mind) has gained particular attention in various disciplines ranging from ethology to cognitive neuroscience. Despite the exponentially growing interest, the functional architecture of social cognition is still unclear. In the present review, we argue that not only the vocabulary but also most of the classic measures for theory of mind lack specificity. We examined classic tests used to assess theory of mind and noted that the majority of them do not require the participant to represent another's mental state or, sometimes, any mental state at all. Our review reveals that numerous classic tests measure lower-level processes that do not directly test for theory of mind. We propose that more attention should be paid to methods used in this field of social cognition to improve the understanding of underlying concepts.

Keywords: empathy; mentalizing; perspective-taking; social cognition; theory of mind.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Mentalization*
  • Neuropsychological Tests / standards*
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Social Perception*
  • Theory of Mind*