The Nature of Consciousness // 129
he false belief task provides
a way to study theory of
mind, but it captures only
one aspect of our under-
standing of the minds of others.
Although children over the age of
4 in many different cultures have
acquired mastery of this task
(Shahaeian & others, 2011), theory
of mind refers to an understanding
not only of beliefs but also of a
range of mental states, including
feelings, goals, and desires. Cross-
cultural research by developmental
psychologist Henry Wellman and his
colleagues (Shahaeian & others,
2011; Wellman & Liu, 2004; Wellman
& others, 2006) has examined the
ways that aspects of theory of mind
unfold in different cultures.
In individualistic cultures, such as
the United States (Wellman & others,
2006), Germany (Kristen & others,
2006), and Australia (Shahaeian &
others, 2011), researchers have
found that children progress through
the following ve stages, in this order:
Diverse desires: Different people like and want different things.
After observing a person choose a carrot over a cookie, the
child can accurately predict that person’s preference, even if it
is different from the child’s own.
Diverse beliefs: Different people can hold different beliefs about
the same thing when both opinions are potentially true. After
nding out that a person holds a particular belief about the
location of a pet, the child can accurately predict where the
person will look for the pet.
Knowledge access: Seeing leads to knowing, and not seeing
leads to ignorance. After seeing a toy being placed inside a
container, the child can accurately predict that a person who
has not looked inside the container will not know it is there.
False beliefs: People can have invalid beliefs. The child can
predict that a person who does not have knowledge of a
change in the location of an object will not look in the new
location for it.
Hidden emotions: People may
choose to hide what they feel in-
side by altering behavior and ex-
pressions. The child is told of a
boy who is teased by his friends
but does not want to be called a
crybaby. The child can identify the
boy’s actual feelings and the face
he would show his friends.
Children in collectivistic cultures,
such as China (Wellman, Fang, &
Peterson, 2011; Wellman & others,
2006) and Iran (Shahaeian & others,
2011), develop the same comprehen-
sive theory of mind, but the order of
the stages is different. In these cul-
tures, children show a sophisticated
understanding of knowledge access
before they demonstrate mastery of
diverse beliefs. Wellman and his col-
leagues (2006) suggest that these
differences indicate that culture is
providing different “inputs” into the
developing theory of mind mechanism
(TOMM), altering the timing of these
various steps along the way.
Why might children in individualistic cultures show a mastery of
diverse beliefs before understanding knowledge access, while
those in collectivistic cultures show the opposite pattern? One
possible explanation lies in childrearing practices. In individualis-
tic cultures, children are encouraged to think for themselves,
develop their own ideas and opinions, and assert their opinions
freely. In contrast, children in collectivistic cultures, which value
harmony and familial respect, are reared to honor their elders and
to acknowledge that adults know more and have access to knowl-
edge the child may lack.
Cross-cultural research on TOMM development provides an
opportunity to see the interplay of nature (one’s genetic inheri-
tance) and nurture (environmental and social experiences). Al-
though achieving an understanding of the subjective inner life of
other human beings is potentially universal, the pathway to this
common human accomplishment may
be in uenced by culture. Even univer-
sal characteristics develop in the con-
text of a rich social world.
Consciousness and Cross-Cultural and
Developmental Psychology: How Does
Culture Shape Theory of Mind Development?
How is your theory of
mind demonstrated in your
interactions with others?
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