Event Abstract

Examining mind-reading in the life span: from longitudinal to training studies

  • 1 University of Pavia, Department of Brain and Behavioral Sciences, Italy

Theory of Mind (ToM) refers to the ability to attribute independent mental states to self and others in order to explain and predict social behavior. It is a fundamental skill used throughout the life span, with important implications for social communication abilities and social relationships (Caputi, Lecce, Pagnin, & Banerjee, 2012). Traditional research in this area has focused on key milestones of normative ToM development during the preschool years (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001) and on clinical populations such as autism (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985). Recent years have seen a massive expansion in the developmental scope of this research field, with interesting new findings showing that ToM continues to develop during and even beyond the school years (Miller, 2012) and that there is a decline associated with normal aging (Henry, Philips, Ruffman, & Bailey, 2013). A limit to this new area of research is that it is mainly based on cross-sectional designs that preclude analysis of developmental relations and limit the understanding of the mechanisms underlying age-related changes. Addressing these gaps, the studies presented here examined the role that social conversations on mental states have: a) in the development of ToM in middle childhood and b) in the improvement of older adults’ ToM. According to this conversational approach, exposure to conversations that are rich in reference to (and explanation of) mental states such as desires, emotions, and beliefs facilitates children’s understanding of others’ minds (Dunn & Brophy, 2005; Nelson, 2005; Turnbull & Carpendale, 1999). In order to reach this goal, we adopted a training design that allowed us to demonstrate specific causal relations between mental states conversations and ToM changes. In study 1 we recruited 91Year 3 children and assigned them to either the ToM condition (30 boys and 15 girls) or the control condition (24 boys and 22 girls). Children received four training sessions over two weeks and were post-tested twice: after the end of the training program (post-test session) and two months later (follow-up session). The structure of the ToM and control training programs consisted of four sessions, each involving group conversations about two stories and two language exercises. Thus, children received eight stories (two stories in each of the four training sessions) and eight language exercises (two exercises in each of the four training sessions) in total. Children had to individually answer questions about the stories and to find the synonymous of a given verb taken from the story. After each of these exercises, children were encouraged to take part in a group conversation in which the researcher used the story questions as prompts and ensured that all children took part in the conversation, discussing their points of view on the story. The researcher also made frequent use of positive and corrective feedback. In the ToM condition, questions require inferences about mental states, the focus verb was a mental state verb and the research made frequent use of mental state terms; in the control condition, questions require to make inferences about physical states, the focus verb was a physical verb and no reference to mental state was made. Results showed that, compared with the control group, children in the experimental group performed significantly better on the ToM task at post-test and follow-up and made greater gains in ToM from pre-test to post-test and from pre-test to follow-up. In study 2 we recruited 63 healthy older adults that were randomly assigned to one of two groups: the ToM training (age range:63–81years) and the physical-conversation training (age range:64–81years). Both trainings were made up of 4 sessions. The activities in both groups increased in the level of complexity lesson after lesson and made use of a range of modalities and materials (visual stimuli, audio stimuli, and written stimuli). The activities of the control condition strictly matched those of the experimental condition, but focused on physical rather than mental states inferences. The ToM training program proposed a set of activities that required the understanding that people can have different perspectives of the same reality: visual perspective- taking, conceptual perspective-taking, and real-life perspective taking. After each single item of each group of tasks, participants were asked to individually answer a series of questions in order to elicit a complete and explicit understanding of the mental states and behavior of characters. After each of these exercises, participants were encouraged to take part in a group conversation. During this conversation, the researcher used the exercises questions as prompts and ensured that all people took part in the conversation, discussing their points of view on the story. The researcher also made frequent use of positive and corrective feedback, expanding participants’ comments and explaining the reasons why their answers were right or wrong. Results showed that the ToM training was effective in promoting ToM and that the ToM training advantage was evident in both the practiced and the transfer ToM tasks. Results of our studies are promising as they show that the social and communicative experiences continue to provide a kind of social apprenticeship during middle childhood and later on, in aging. We argue that the content of the conversations (rather than their simple frequency) underpinned the observed gains in ToM performance. We believe that our training program helped participants to become more sensitive, motivated, and aware of when and how to use their insights about mental states such as beliefs. It is likely that it strengthened the ability to make mental inferences in a context-sensitive manner, to detect relevant information in social situations, and to construct appropriate models of complex social interactions. Future studies will elucidate the specific social processes that are responsible for improvements in ToM and will better understand the relationship between ToM and a crucial aspect of skills involved in conversations: pragmatics.


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Caputi, M., Lecce, S., Pagnin, A., & Banerjee, R. (2012). Longitudinal effects of theory of mind on later peer relations: The role of prosocial behavior. Developmental Psychology, 48, 257-270. doi:10.1037/a0025402
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Henry, J. D., Philips, L. H., Ruffman, T., & Bailey, P. E. (2013). A meta-analytic review of age differences in theory of mind. Psychology and Aging, 28, 826–839. http:// dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0030677 Hertzog, C., Dixon, R. A., & Hultsch, D.
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Keywords: theory of mind (ToM), Mental state talk, conversation, training, normal aging, middle childhood

Conference: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing , Genoa, Italy, 10 Jun - 11 Jun, 2017.

Presentation Type: Oral Presentation

Topic: Acquisition of pragmatic and mind-reading abilities

Citation: LECCE S (2019). Examining mind-reading in the life span: from longitudinal to training studies. Front. Psychol. Conference Abstract: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing . doi: 10.3389/conf.fpsyg.2017.71.00005

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Received: 02 May 2017; Published Online: 25 Jan 2019.

* Correspondence: Prof. SERENA LECCE, University of Pavia, Department of Brain and Behavioral Sciences, Pavia, PV, 27100, Italy, slecce@unipv.it

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