By the time you’re about five years old, you’ve already received almost everything you need to succeed at life.
Yep, I said it.
But I said it, because it’s true!
Nearly every five year old child is imbued with one key ability that many psychologists deem to be “the most important development” in childhood.
Nay, in life.
What is it?!
Alright, fine. Because you asked so nicely, I’ll spill.
In psychology, we call it:
Theory of Mind.
ToM, if we’re being less dramatic.
ToM is simply this: the understanding that people are mental beings, each with his or her own mental states.
States can refer to wants, needs, thoughts, feelings, and even motives held by an individual. Psychologists tend to agree that once we acknowledge these mental states in others, we use them to make certain judgments. Mainly, we use them to draw conclusions about the purpose or meaning of someone’s actions.
In layman’s terms, we start to think about what other people might possibly be thinking when they do something.
Or more importantly, when they don’t do something.
And whether or not they really meant to do what they did or not do what they didn’t do.
Yes, psychology gets trippy sometimes. Just roll with me, here. I promise I’m going somewhere.
Now, there are a couple major social cognition milestones that lead to ToM.
Remember, all of these happen before age 5.
First, a child must gain an understanding of attention.
This one’s pretty basic. As children mature, they begin to realize they can choose where they place their attention. They learn that things can either be of interest or not, and then they begin to attune to those things they find interesting. They share this interest with others by pointing.
This action is called joint attention behavior.
Psychologists are not the most creative bunch when it comes to naming things. Pretty much right up there with the people who name kitchen appliances. If they were more creative or even more narcissistic, we’d be talking about the Simon Baron-Cohen Theory.
That would be about as useful as calling a toaster a Charles Strite Machine.
But I digress…
Joint attention behavior requires that the child understands that other people a) have attention to give, b) notice objects of interest, and c) can choose to turn their attention to things they find interesting.
Basically, other people are just like them.
This is no small feat, btw.
Some psychologies believe that this very action—pointing to things and having people look where you pointed—is the basis for all of human communication.
And you thought “made you look” was just a fun game…
Anyway, once a child achieves this milestone, he or she begins to gain an understanding of intention.
This one’s pretty basic, too… at first. Understanding intentionality means that the child knows that someone’s actions are both a) goal oriented and b) arising from a particular set of beliefs or desires. The kicker here is that kids start to understand whether or not someone does something on purpose.
We test this… just to make sure.
Sure enough, by three (or sometimes even two) years old, an infant can tell the difference between an experimenter checking a box by accident or checking a box intentionally.
I’m not sure you caught that, but even a two-year old can call your bluff.
Again, no small feat.
Once a child progresses through this stage, they begin to understand theory of mind.
Theory of mind involves three key components:
- I have a mind with thoughts, beliefs, intents, desires…
- You have a mind with thoughts, beliefs, intents, desires…
- What I think, believe, intend, or desire may be different from what you think, believe, intend, or desire.
That last one is the rub, especially for children:
Other people have thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and desires that may be different from mine.
Of course, being scientists and all, we have to test this, too.
We know children have the capacity for ToM when they can begin to spot false beliefs. The most famous experiment for this ability involves showing a child two different characters, each with her own basket. Let’s call them Sally and Sarah. While both characters are present, Sally places a toy into her basket. Sally leaves the scene, and while she is gone, the Sarah moves the toy into the other basket. After a moment, Sally returns.
Then the experimenter pauses the scene and asks the child…
Where will Sally look for the toy?
If the child can tell that Sally will not be able to know that the toy has been moved and will look in her own basket, then we can presumably say that this child has developed one of the most basic and essential characteristics of being a human…
The ability to understand that two realities might very well be different.
In fact, that two realities may both be rooted in strong, undeniable belief, and yet, may be different.
And my question is this…
AT WHAT POINT DID WE—ADULTS—FORGET THIS BASIC, BASIC CONCEPT?!
At what point did we stop appreciating that other people can’t read our minds?!
I know this idea sounds pretty basic, but just think about it for a minute.
How many emails do you have “every intention of sending” but just haven’t gotten around to it?
Guess what… no matter how hard you work… no one sees your intentions.
All they see are your actions.
Or, how about the apology you have “every intention of giving” but just haven’t made time to do?
Guess what… no matter how noble you feel… no one sees your intention.
All they see are your actions.
Or, the chores, the favors, the referrals, the connections, the to-do lists, the phone calls, the postcards… you name it… all the things you have “every intention of doing” but haven’t done?
Guess what… I know this will be shocking… no one sees your intentions!
All they see are your actions.
I learned this the hard way when I started a new job.
I learned it the even harder way when I started a new relationship.
I learned it the hardest way when I lost that job and lost that relationship.
Remember that people are only human—they can’t read minds.
All they will see are your actions.
So make them count. And make sure they align with your intentions. Because, it truly is the most important thing you learned in kindergarten.
I have faith that you have great intentions to do great things.
Do everything you can to let the world know what they are.