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Table of Contents
1.1 General Background
1.2 Cognitive and Affective ToM and their Assessment
1.3 Age Effects on the Development of ToM
1.4 Influence of Language on ToM Processes
1.5 Aims of this Study
2.1 Test for verbal intelligence: What’s that Word
2.2 Test for ToM: Social Story Questionnaire
4.1 Limitations of this Study and Outlook
1.1 General Background
In everyday social interactions, it is necessary to be able to reconstruct other people’s train of thoughts in order to understand, predict and explain their actions and behaviours. Oftentimes, mental states and behaviour do not stand in a one-to- one relation, thus making it difficult to “read the minds” of others. Internal states can be revealed via facial expressions, gestures and language; hence it is important to adopt strategies that enable us to interpret these codes (Baldwin & Saylor, 2005). These strategies of ascribing mental states to oneself and others were first defined by Premack and Woodruff in 1978 by the term Theory of Mind (henceforth ToM). Having a ToM refers to the knowledge that every person has their own representation of reality and is thought of as the foundation for a variety of social tasks like imaginative play, successful exchange of information or the understanding of deception (Frith 1996). Differentiating between one’s own and the minds of others is regarded as a highly specialized, human-specific skill and is a crucial prerequisite for successfully and appropriately functioning in social situations (Adolphs, 2003; Herrmann et al., 2007).
1.2 Cognitive and Affective ToM and their Assessment
After opening a new field of research, ToM was first defined very broadly and the term was treated as a unitary concept. However, recent studies have begun to consider ToM as a multidimensional construct with various subcomponents (Shamay-Tsoory, Tibi-Elhanani & Ahron-Peretz, 2007; Sebastian et al., 2011). An important differentiation that has been proposed is that of ‘affective’ and ‘cognitive’ ToM. Cognitive ToM refers to the understanding of the difference between the speaker’s knowledge and that of the listener, whereas affective ToM is rather concerned with the understanding of differences between the emotional states of individuals (Brothers & Ring, 1992).
Cognitive ToM skills can be assessed by a variety of tests like false belief (understanding of a character’s false beliefs ab out the reality of a situation) or attribution of intention (deduction of the intention behind a character’s action). False belief tasks, which are the most common tools for assessing ToM abilities, can be subcategorised into first-order false beliefs (i.e. understanding of another person’s beliefs about the world) and second-order false beliefs (i.e. understanding of another person’s beliefs about what again another person believes about the world) (Duval et al. 2011).
Affective ToM tasks require emotion understanding which is often assessed by associating emotional state terms to pictures or stories. The test including the detection of social faux pas (social blunder or lack of tact in a scenario), that is used in the study at hand, can be interpreted as requiring both the cognitive as well as the affective components of ToM processing. (Baron-Cohen et al., 1999)
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Fig.1: Cognitive and Affective ToM and Exemplary Tasks for Assessment
1.3 Age Effects on the Development of ToM
The participants tested in study at hand are young adults, hence it is crucial to first analyse the developmental stages of ToM abilities from early childhood onwards, in order to understand how ToM processing works in adults. The ability to distinguish between own and others’ beliefs already starts to form early in life, but literature on child development is divided by disagreement on the question of how early this understanding develops in healthy children. However, most of the findings suggest that the ability to infer mental states can be shown in children as young as 4 years. (Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith, 1985; Happé, 1993; Leslie & Frith, 1988).
The most commonly used tasks to assess children’s ToM abilities are the false belief tasks. The consensus of studies using the false belief task is that by the age of 6 or 7, children are fully able to solve second-order false belief tasks (e.g. Perner & Wimmer, 1985; Sullivan, Zaitchick & Tager-Flusberg, 1994). These false belief tasks are a very good indicator of the early development of ToM, but they cannot provide us with information as to how ToM changes during different developmental stages, because they only investigate a limited scope of ToM abilities. It is assumed that other important aspects of ToM like the understanding of metaphors, jokes and lies as well as the ability to detect faux pas in social contexts develops further in succeeding years. (Brüne & Brüne-Cohrs, 2005) Thus, other studies are required in order to examine these developmental changes.
Baron-Cohen et al. (1999) also believed that ToM development clearly goes beyond the age of 7 and therefore devised a task that required the detection of social faux pas (similar to the one used in the study at hand). Social faux pas are utterances that are made without consideration, which in turn lead to negative consequences that the speaker did not intend (i.e. offending the listener). These tasks require more complex ToM abilities than the aforementioned false belief tasks, since participants have to take both the listener’s as well as the speaker’s perspective into account. They tested 9-11 year old children and found out that the ability of faux pas detection increases with age in normally developing children. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) however, performed more poorly in the faux pas detection task. All of the participants had to pass a second order false belief test prior to this study, thus confirming that the faux pas task is a more profound measure of ToM, as many of the children with AS were unable to correctly detect a faux pas but were able to pass the false belief task.
No definitive statement has been proposed yet, if or to what extent ToM abilities develop from adolescence into adulthood. Dumontheil et al. (2010) showed that the ability to adopt another agent’s point of view grows from childhood to adolescence and further improves in adulthood, but it has not been clarified, when ToM reaches a final degree of maturation, at what age it starts to decline or if these points cannot be exactly determined at all.
Happé, Winner & Brownell (1998) were one of the first to compare performance in cognitive ToM tasks of old adults (mean = 73) to that of young adults (mean = 21). For this purpose, the participants were presented so-called Strange Stories that included double bluffs, mistakes, persuasions and white lies. Subsequently, questions were asked that required an inference about the characters’ mental states. Particularly in the light of the fact that the performance on other cognitive processes that did not require attribution of mental states was below that of the young participants, it was surprising that the group of older participants scored higher on the ToM task. Hence, they assumed that ToM development continues during adulthood. The sample of the older adults however counted only 18 participants, thus making it difficult to ascertain significant results. This might potentially be the reason why other studies report contradictory results.
Although they also included a sub-set of the stories used in the aforementioned study, Maylor et al. found reverse age effects for the ToM task. Older participants performed more poorly than the young participants, thus claiming that ToM abilities decline with old age. Many other studies that have assessed the cognitive component in young and old participants support the claim that performance declines with age. Charlton et al. (2009) showed that the deterioration in cognitive ToM performances with age is almost linear. Moreover, recent studies argue that an age-related decline can also be shown regarding affective ToM tasks, in which inferences about the characters’ emotional stat es are required (McKinnon & Moskovitch 2007).
Overall, more research suggests that performance in ToM tasks probably reaches its point of culmination in young adulthood and starts to decline from that point onward. (e.g. Duval et al., 2011; Pardini & Nichelli, 2009)
1.4 Influence of Language on ToM Processes
A highly debated issue pertaining to the development of ToM abilities is the link between language and our capacity of understanding other’s intentions, thoughts and beliefs. As a preliminary, it should be apparent that both language and ToM are very complex and multidimensional concepts thus making it impossible to draw any conclusion without looking at different aspects first. The multitude of components, that these concepts are composed of, has led scientists to draw rather controversial conclusions.
Many theorists believe in a strong relation between these two concepts. Nelson (2005) even proposes that language is the most important instrument with which children are able to distinguish between their own minds and the minds of others. According to her, children are exposed to the beliefs and thoughts of other people through communication and thus begin to acquire basic “mind-reading” abilities. They need to be capable of transferring other people’s statement into their own mental representation of what the other person believes, thus using language as a representational system for becoming a part of what she calls the “Community of Minds”. Evidence from studies even suggests that language is not only an instrument but rather a prerequisite for ToM, since early verbal ability predicted performance in later ToM tasks, but similar results could not be found by testing these abilities vice versa. (Astington & Jenkins 1999).
Furthermore, several studies have put emphasis on specific aspects of language like syntax (e.g., de Villiers & Pyers, 2002; Lind & Bowler, 2009) semantics (e.g., Moore, Pure, & Furrow, 1990) or pragmatics (e.g. Baron-Cohen, 1988). However, it could not be shown if a particular aspect is exceptionally important for ToM development.
On the other hand, it has also been hypothesized that language and communicative abilities are cognitively distinct. A recent neuroimaging study found out that the medial prefrontal cortex, which is part of the so-called ‘mentalizing network’, was sensitive to communicative effort, but not to linguistic difficulty. Other brain areas that are important for language however, only showed sensitivity to linguistic difficulty and not to communicative effort (Willems et al., 2010).
Since different stages of language acquisition can be important reference points for determining the link between ToM and language, the better part of research is focussed on children. An effective way of finding out if and to what extent language acquisition is involved in ToM reasoning, is to look at individuals with impairments that affect communication. Happé (1995) for instance, tested children with and without autism for verbal and ToM ability. Using the British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS), they showed that language is somehow linked to false-belief understanding in both of these groups. Jenkins & Astington (1996) confirmed these findings when measuring overall language development and false- belief performance. The study Happé (1995) conducted also yielded quite striking results concerning the relation between verbal mental age (VMA) and false belief tasks in autistic and normally developing children. All subjects with VMA below a certain lower threshold failed and all subjects with VMA above an upper threshold passed the two ToM tasks presented. Interestingly, the thresholds for both groups varied significantly. Autistic subjects required a higher VMA before passing both test than the normally developing children. They concluded that autistic children might have to use verbal cognitive strategies in dealing with social situations more than is necessary for normally developing children.
There have also been studies that found correlations between language and affective ToM in children. Pons et al. (2003) presented drawings of face emotions and children had to choose one that in their mind was best suitable for a particular situation (e.g. getting a present at their birthday). The children’s language ability explained 27% of the variance in emotion understanding after controlling for age.
Of course, there is also research that does not attach importance to the correlations between language and ToM processes. A prevalent argument sees language only superficially related to ToM, because successful performance in many ToM tasks requires certain language abilities to begin with. In fact, indications of ToM abilities have been found in children as young as 15 months by using non-verbal ToM tasks. However, aforementioned evidence from other studies points to a more profound relation between these concepts, since correlations can also be found in tasks with very low language requirements (Miller, 2001; Schick et al. 2007).
The importance of interaction and discourse with siblings and conversation with caregivers has also been related to ToM development (e.g., Dunn et al., 1991; Perner, Ruffman, & Leekam, 1994; Figueras-Costa & Harris, 2001). These assumptions could also be verified by Schick et al. (2007), who conducted a study with deaf children. One group of those children grew up with parents that were also deaf and were thus exposed to sign language, while the other group had parents without hearing impairments. In comparing the results of these groups with hearing children, they found out that the former performed just as well, while the latter showed a significant delay in performance of ToM tasks.
Since many ToM tasks, like the one used in the study at hand, are storybased, performance may also depend on narrative comprehension (Lewis, et al. 1994). Narrative comprehension calls for a coordination of different language abilities, which still develop during school years. In the scope of an fMRIlongitudinal study, Szaflarski et al. (2012) found a linear increase in the activation of the bilateral temporal cortex with age, which is important for narrative processing. The increase did not abate between the ages of 5 and 18 and thus this highly complex skill does not mature until adulthood. A measure of verbal intelligence and neurological structures furthermore showed that this skill undergoes changes during adolescence in a brain region that is attributed with language. (Ramsden et al., 2011) Hence, it can be assumed that language is not only important for ToM with regard to acquisition in childhood, but is also a determining factor in later developmental stages.
The significance of verbal ability and ToM has also been tested in young adults and again, correlations were found. A highly interesting study, especially in regards to the study at hand, is that of Peterson & Miller (2012), who used the Reading the Mind in the Eyes-Test (REM) as a measure for affective ToM. In the REM, participants have to choose a descriptor for mental states by looking at a photo of a pair of eyes only. As opposed to story-based ToM task, which are more linguistically challenging, it could be assumed that the REM relies on a more implicit social-perceptual analysis. Nonetheless, the authors found surprising correlations between verbal IQ and the ToM task. In their sample, the assessment of verbal ability explained nearly 25% of the variance while performance ability did not show a significant correlation. Thus, it makes sense to predict that verbal ability may be more important for ToM abilities than performance ability.
Again, there are contradictory findings to this claim. Wang & Su (2013) tested old and young adults on Strange stories and a Faux Pas task. They included three different measures of intelligence (verbal, performance and full-scale IQ). However, ToM performance could not be explained by any of the IQ tests.
1.5 Aims of this Study
The experiments highlight that language and theory of mind are probably intimately related, but several questions pertaining to different aspects of verbal ability and ToM remain to be answered. Upon the findings presented above, this study tries to further investigate how language and ToM processes are interdependent. More precisely, it will take a look at correlations between verbal intelligence and the detection of social faux pas in a sample of young adults. Research on the relationship between language and ToM in children is very extensive, but in adults it is quite scattered. This study tries to shed further light on the significance of language for ToM processes in adulthood. For this purpose, the “What’s That Word-test” (WTW) as an assessment of verbal intelligence and the Social Story Questionnaire (SSQ) as an assessment of ToM abilities are used. The WTW is an analogy test that calls for abstract reasoning and is thus suited for an assessment of verbal intelligence in adults. In fact, children under the age of 11 do not show highly successful performance in verbal analogy tests and it can be assumed that analogies require higher-order reasoning skills that only emerge in the formal operational phase (Lunzer, 1965).
Indubitably, participants will have to present a certain kind of linguistic knowledge to understand the content of the stories presented in the questionnaire, but more importantly, they will need profound abilities of inferring mental states as well. Receptive language (as tested in the SSQ) goes beyond mere vocabulary knowledge. It calls for the understanding and interpretation of more complex meanings. Thus an artefactual correlation on the basis of verbal abilities will not be expected.
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- Alexandra Glückstein (Autor), 1997, Kulturschock und das Problem der Anpassung an die neue kulturelle Umwelt, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/97969