[Source: Hands & Voices]
What is social cognition and theory of mind?
Humans are social animals and we spend a great deal of time in social relationships. As children develop, they gain a better understanding of peers and adults around them. They become aware that people can differ on what they believe, know, and want. Their values and goals can be different from our own. Some people call this “mindreading other people’s minds”. Scientists often call this kind of understanding social cognition or theory of mind.
Adults and children use our understanding of social cognition everyday. As young as 18 months of age, infants look to a parent’s face for “advice” in situations, such as how should I feel about that big dog? They seem to look for information about what the parent is thinking about this situation – is it frightening or not? Later, at age 4, children can typically understand that people can have misunderstandings and false beliefs, as when mom thinks dad will be home after work, but he forgot to tell her that he had a doctor’s appointment. Or that Little Red Riding Hood really thought the wolf was grandmother (but the reader does not). A student in middle school uses social cognition when he can discuss the role of differing beliefs and attitudes in the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s and contrast them with beliefs and attitudes that are pervasive today. As adults, we use our skills in social cognition everyday, such as when we prepare a presentation to inform colleagues, determining what information they already know, what they need to know, and what potential misunderstanding there might be. We use these skills when we buy a present for loved one, trying to get the perfect gift.
In short, our ability to understand the attitudes, beliefs, values, desires, and knowledge of others plays a large role in our lives.