This is called Theory of Mind, or TOM. This theory was first developed to investigate autism and to further understand primates. It was suggested that those who do not posses TOM were the victims of autism. (Tirapu-Ustarroz et. al. 2007) Other scientists suggest that what separates mankind from primates is that mankind possesses a “species-specific set of social cognitive skills” (Herman et. al. 2007). Arguably that covers a broader range than TOM but it encompasses it, uniting these scientists under one front. However, some scientists say that chimpanzees do indeed possess TOM.
By showing a chimpanzee a series of video tapes of humans in situations that lacked a solution, and then presenting several different photos, one with a solution to the problem, it was shown that chimpanzees do indeed possess a version of TOM. For example, the chimpanzee was shown a video of a phonograph, unable to play because it was unplugged. The chimpanzee then chose the photo of a plugged in phonograph as a solution (Premack and Woodruff 1978). Similarly, others continue to suggest that we are not so very different from other primates.
In an article titled Humans Have Evolved Specialized Skills of Social Cognition: The Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis results it is suggested that it is not “general intelligence” that separates us from other animals, it is the level of sophistication and maturity of our cognitive skills. In fact, 2. 5 year old children did not differ from chimpanzees significantly in cognitive skills , specifically those used to assess the physical world (Herman et. al. 2007). In the science world, it has long been debated at what age TOM is developed. Is TOM developed relatively late in childhood (age four) or as early as 7 months?
The scientific community is split. There are those that suggest that TOM is developed at age four. And still those that say TOM is innate and can be seen relatively early in child development, it is just undetectable unless a nonverbal false-belief task is assumed (Onishi and Baillargeon 2005). In The Social Sense: Susceptibility to Others’ Beliefs in Human Infants and Adults scientists explore exactly this topic. False belief tasks : Adults vs. infants This article focuses on the differences and similarities of 7 month olds, 3 year olds, and adults in their reaction to several different false-belief tasks.
A false belief task is a test, usually using a video or pictures, involving an agent and a participant. The agent is the person watching the video and reacting to it. The participant is the person in the video that is actually doing a task. (Kovacs 2010) There were seven experiments performed in order to reach a conclusion to a compounded hypothesis– how do other’s beliefs affect the actions of an individual when the agent is present and absent. Furthermore, how early is this ability developed and to what extent does it differ between individuals, specifically 7 month olds, versus adults. If TOM is innate, it hould be as automatic as our response to our physical environment. This is also explored. (Kovacs 2010) In the first experiment, adults watched a series of videos of a ball and an occluder. In each video, the ball either stayed behind the occluder, rolled off the screen in front of the agent only, or rolled away in front of the agent and participant. The adults watching are the agents. The people in the video are the participants. After each video, either the participant and the agent both believed the ball to be behind the occluder, both believed it to have rolled away, or have conflicting beliefs.
This is an example of a false-belief task. Then they measured the reaction times of the participants detecting the ball in each situation. The presence of an agent had nothing to do with the task, however, it affected the reaction time of participants. (Kovacs 2010) In Experiment 2, in the last scene of the movie, a pile of boxes was in place of an agent. Surprisingly, the results were the same as experiment one. This shows that the agents beliefs were stored and still affected the behavior of the participant. The participants found the ball quickly when both they and the agent believed it to be behind the occluder. Kovacs 2010) Experiment 3 was performed to show further strengthen the results found in Experiment 1 and 2. Experiment 4-7 were the same as Experiments 1-3 but used infants and looking times versus reaction times. Each subsequent experiment was performed to further solidify the results of the previous experiment. (Kovacs 2010) Conclusion So, to answer the initial question as to how we differ from our primate relatives and when we develop this ability, all pertinent information seems to suggest that TOM is indeed a major distinguisher, and that this innate ability is detectable as early as 7 months of age.
Why this matters The results of this experiment are ground-breaking. For decades, scientist have said that TOM is developed at age four. But if TOM is innate and not learned, this reveals a peek into the social structure of mankind. It leads to answers to questions like why we act the way we do in society, and how we evolved into who we are today. It also provides a nonverbal false-belief task that can be performed on infants. This means it can also be performed on other primates, and maybe even those with brain damage that provides them incapable of speaking.
With this, we can investigate whether TOM is affected by certain types of brain damage, and if it is specified to one location in the brain. We can identify the absence of TOM in certain patients with certain diseases which would allow us to draw certain conclusions about the disease itself. This experiment opens numerous doors to and exciting field of science. Cited References 1. Herrmann E. , Call J. , Hernandez-LloredaM. V. , Hare B. , Tomasello M (2007), Humans have evolved specialized skills of social cognition: The cultural intelligence hypothesis.