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Folk-psychology and Development

Page history last edited by philosophyofsocialcognition 16 years, 1 month ago

Folk Psychology and Development


Folk psychology refers to the  common sense interpretative framework that humans use intuitively in attempting to understand mental states in ourselves and of others. This folk understanding of mental states constitutes as a theory of mind, which is often centered around beliefs and desires.


Two explanations have been posited as how the mindreading mechanisms work: theory-theory and simulation theory. Theory-theory has been predominant over the past few decades. It roughly equates to the idea that explanations are connected with a set of concepts that help navigate everyday life. Like scientific theories, these concepts change as we learn more about our environment. The alternative theory, simulation, suggests that we use our own empathic skills as a resource to simulate how others are feeling. By putting yourself in the shoes of another, we can simulate how they are feeling and therefore make sense of their behaviour. In both cases, folk-psychologist attribute beliefs and desires to other minds in order to predict and explain them.  


According to Gopnik and Wellman (1992), the acquisition of the theory of mind develops through the succession of three stages: the 2-year-old theory, the 3-year-old theory and the 5-year old theory. It must be noted that the timing of each stage is variable from person to person as the changes are also not all-or-none but reflect more of a gradual transition, just like the course of development.

At 2-year-old, a framework of the theory is developed, marking an epoch in the theory of mind. At this basic level the child holds a basic desire-perception theory: she know that agents are aware of perceptible objects, and that they may have a drive to acquire something when they want it. However, the theory itself is incomplete: the concepts of mental states and beliefs are not mastered. At 3-year-old, the intermediating state, the child will demonstrate preliminary understanding of representational states. Here, the use of mental states will exhibit an understanding of false representational states, but unlike adults, these mental states, in the child’s eyes, have a direct causal link between objects and agents. The last stage, which normally appears around age four, is the 5-year-old theory. The central explanatory theory that has been used up until this point is reorganized into a complete belief-desire psychology (folk-psychology). Children gain the ability to identify and empathize how others feel and begin to base their representations on how others see the world rather than seeing it, egocentrically through their eyes.  This is also known as the representational model of the mind (Forguson & Gopnik, 1988). Once the child is able to pass the false beliefs task (see Autism), the child has acquired a capacity for distinguishing between what people think and what actually is. Their theory of mind is fully developed





  • Forguson, L., & Gopnik, A. (1988). The ontogeny of common sense. In JW Astington, PL Harris, & DR Olson (Eds.), Developing theories of mind (pp. 226-243)..New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gopnik, A., & Wellman, H. M. (1992). Why the Child's Theory of Mind Really Is a Theory. Mind & Language, 7(1-2), 145-171.


- Victoria Lau, University of Toronto

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