Does Culture Determine Your Theory of Mind?

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What has distinguished Homo sapiens from non-human organisms is their ability to develop a theory of mind (Scholl & Leslie, 2001). Premack & Woodruff (1978) originally defined theory of mind as being the tendency to make attributions about behaviour based on acquired knowledge of mental states, such as belief, desire and intention. An equally important aspect of theory of mind concerned the individual's ability to understand the subjectivity of mental states, comprehending that other individuals have desires and beliefs that differ significantly from one's own, an understanding that is highly important to human functioning (Baren-Cohen, 1995). This essay questions the influence that culture has on the development of a theory of mind. What was of primary interest in this essay was to investigate the extent to which theory of mind was characterized by universal processes of development and whether underlying cultural factors were responsible for the timing and development of theory of mind. Certain marked cultural differences were suggested as influential variables which could determine the development of a theory of mind, these being parenting styles, number of siblings and executive function which were thought to play a pivotal role in the development of a cultural identity (Lillard, 1998). In the context of cross-cultural comparison, a critical assessment of the false-belief task was conducted. The validity and reliability of the false-belief task was analyzed in relation to the development of theory of mind, and alternative explanations and measurement tools were provided which would allow for a more sensitive and reliable cross-cultural comparison to be made.

Described as onto-genetically universal, theory of mind is a construct of human psychology and biology that is universally applicable to every culture (Liu, Wellman, Tardif & Sabbagh, 2008) . A unanimous result from twenty five years of research has reported that a theory of mind is developed in early childhood and exhibited from the age of five or six years old as result of progressive stages of development (Lillard, 1998). Many researchers (e.g Liu et al., 2008; Wellman, Cross & Watson, 2001) have observed parallel developmental trajectories between western and non-western cultures in relation to the age at which a child acquires a theory of mind. Callghan, Rochat, Lillard, Claux, Odden & Itakura (2005) observed the cross-cultural development of theory of mind in samples of 12-31 children and declared there to be a ‘critical period’ of development between the ages of three and five years old when children begun to conceptualize and understand the difference between belief and reality. From a remote bush community in western Africa, to a mountain village in Peru, researchers (e.g. Avis & Harris, 1991) have observed the universal development of a theory of mind. The communicative purposes of theory of mind are invaluable to the survival and higher functioning of human kind. Cross-culturally, theory of mind is relevant in order to teach, deceive, inform and share planned actions (Baren-Cohen,1999). However, although this cognitive 2

development is fundamental and pivotal to human functioning, research in this field of investigation has challenged the universality and applicability of theory of mind postulating that cross-cultural variations were responsible for determining and influencing the timing and stages at which theory of mind developed.

Many prominent research studies have been published in the literature, arguing for the influence of culture on the development of a theory of mind (Wellman et al., 2001). Astington (2001) has argued that although cross-cultural variation does not reflect a child’s ability to acquire a theory of mind, there may perhaps be sociocultural variances in early childhood experience that could potentially influence how and when a child achieves theory of mind. Similarly, studies have observed a discrepancy...
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