Mind is a Product of Social and Cultural Environment

The Theory of Mind and the Influence of the Sociocultural Context

The theory of mind seeks to explain how humans come to be aware of other people's mental states, ideas, and feelings. The sociocultural context influences people's ability to understand and accept the perspectives and mental capacities of others. It is a person's ability to identify their beliefs, interests, desires, knowledge, and intents, as well as the disparities in beliefs, viewpoints, and desires between individuals (Carlson et al 187). People with autism and schizophrenia may have deficiencies in their theory of mind, yet everyone understands that other people have minds. The individual know about their own minds through introspection; but knowing about the minds of others requires interaction with them. Although no one has a direct access to the minds of others, the social and cultural environment affects people's perception of others; hence developing the presumption that other people have minds analogous to their own - with thoughts, beliefs, and intents.

The Development of Theory of Mind

The theory of mind is an innate ability among human beings, and it takes time to develop through social and cultural experiences as people interact in their sociocultural environments. Due to individual differences in theory of the mind, people perceive the mental abilities of others differently (Hughes and Devine 150). In this regard, some people are more tolerant of varying beliefs in the society than others; hence some people are more accommodative of varying opinions and diversities than others. Several studies on diverse samples of children have shown differences in children's social development and theories of mind (Hughes and Devine 151). These differences are influenced by both biological and environmental factors. However, social interaction shapes individuals' perception of others significantly.

The Role of Empathy

One of the concepts that shape social interaction is empathy, which affects the differences in the theory of mind among various individuals. Filippova and Astington (925) suggest that empathy is the ability of an individual to put themselves in the shoes of other people and understand their beliefs, intents, and perspectives. People's empathy depends on their cultural beliefs and social norms because some sociocultural backgrounds are more tolerant of other people than others. Some cultures may also encourage respect for values and virtues including empathy, respect, and tolerance. Furthermore, some religions have doctrines and beliefs that may be intolerant of other religions. In this regard, societies may experience religious intolerance, leading one religious group to view other religious beliefs as inferior and undesirable.

The Influence of Sociocultural Environment

Hughes and Devine (149) suggest that theory of mind is both the cause and consequence of the sociocultural environment. Twin studies have also shown differences in theory of mind between identical twins raised in different environments; hence showing that environmental factors can explain the differences in the theory of mind among individuals. Furthermore, the differences in theory of mind affect the social development of children. Hughes and Devine (153) argue that the consequences of the theory of mind on social interactions increase at the advanced stages of children's development, especially from middle childhood onwards.

The Theory of Mind and Social Relationships

The theory of mind helps children maintain friendships with their peers at school and at home. It enables children to understand the mental states of others and appreciate their differences; hence being able to tolerate each other and develop bonds of friendships (Hughes and Devine 153). Nonetheless, the social environment of children helps them to develop the theory of mind and empathy. For example, interactions with peers at school enable children to develop higher levels of intimacy and increased awareness of the mental processes of their peers. Hughes and Devine (152) suggest that the theory of mind is sometimes a necessary but not sufficient causal factor of social competence. However, the theory of mind can be used together with other factors such as behavioral cues, social scripts, and narratives to influence people's actions in their social environment.

Construction of Meaning and Social Relationships

Social interactions also affect people's construction of meaning to enhance stronger social relationships. For example, Filippova and Astington (914) suggest that discourse irony is an important strategy for creating meaning and enhancing social relationships in various social institutions. Various forms of irony such as understatement and overstatement, sarcasm and humor communicate beliefs and attitudes indirectly to illustrate the speaker's meaning. In this regard, the audience of the speaker receives messages from their social environments and decodes them to create meaning based on the context of the message and the prevailing conditions under which the social interaction occurred.

Interpreting Communicative Functions and Socio-Cognitive Development

The ability of the recipient of irony to interpret the intended meaning correctly enables them to recognize the motivation of the speaker (Filippova and Astington 917). For instance, the construction of sarcasm in communication may enable the listener or recipient of information to understand the speaker's message as a form of ridicule; hence perceiving their mental state, attitude, or belief negatively. The creation of beliefs and attitudes is also a product of socio-cognitive development and social-communicative elements of sociocultural environments. Socio-cognitive skills involve observing and interpreting the mind of the speaker to enhance either a positive or negative social interaction or relationship. For instance, if a recipient of a sarcastic message reads ridicule in the message, he or she may develop a negative social relationship with the speaker. Various social interactions involve the dissemination and processing of information, resulting in the creation of meanings from time to time; hence influencing individuals' views and understanding of the mental states and attitudes of other people. Social-communicative elements of social interactions relate to pragmatic functions. The purpose of conveying a message tells a lot about the feelings, beliefs, and attitudes of the people involved in the process of communication.

Language Development and Theory of Mind

The socio-cognitive abilities of children depend on their sociocultural experiences. Filippova and Astington's findings show that people begin to interpret the pragmatic function and communicative effect of irony from middle childhood. At this age, children start to create meanings from other people's messages; and from that meaning, they can deduce the mental states of the communicator. Therefore, people's minds develop with increased interactions in their social environments. As people interact, they exchange information based on prior thoughts and beliefs of the communicating parties. Sophisticated communications in various sociocultural settings involve the interpretation of various intentions and motivations of the speaker (Filippova and Astington 917). Social interactions are primarily concerned with a constant exchange of meanings with underlying motivations and understanding. An individual's ability to interpret such motivations and intentions reflects his or her socio-cognitive development.

Understanding Others Through Intuition and Language

Human beings also interpret the communicative functions of others through intuition resulting from the exposure to social standards and norms from childhood, enabling them to identify the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors (Filippova and Janet Astington 920). Furthermore, adults interpret complex mental states including the intentions, attitudes, and motivations of others through an active reflective process of representing the mind of the speaker. In this regard, children have difficulties in the reflective and interpretative process of reading other people's minds; but they have an intuition from their social environment that helps them identify right and wrong behaviors and intentions.

Language Development and Socio-Cognitive Skills

The study of Brooks and Meltzoff (68) also found out that children's social cognition helps in the understanding of other people's mental states, and language affects socio-cognitive skills of those children. Because language is an important element of sociocultural interactions in human societies, it is clear that language helps people develop the theory of mind. According to Brooks and Meltzoff (68), gaze following occurs since childhood, and demonstrates a child's ability in the theory of mind and the development of interpretative ability and perspective taking. The sociocultural environment also offers children the ability to understand the visual perception of others; hence helping them to understand their mental states (Hughes and Devine 153). Evidence from research shows strong evidence that children who have been trained to understand the visual perception of others are likely to identify false belief (Moll & Tomasello 604)). The understanding of visual cues and perceptions in the social environment enables individuals to understand other people's less visible mental states such as attitudes and motivations. The theory of mind is also influenced by children's language development. In this regard, the child's mind develops in direct relation to their language development. Brooks and Meltzoff (75) suggest that the conversations between children and their peers, parents, or teachers involve mental states; hence, they are able to interpret them in the process of communicating or interacting with others. As children interact with other people in their day-to-day lives, they increase their vocabularies and improve their knowledge and understanding of the beliefs, desires, and emotions of others (Astington 686). Children also develop the cognition of mental state vocabularies, which enhances the understanding of beliefs. Moreover, maternal education promotes children's understanding of other people's mental states. The findings of Wellman and Liu (523) suggest that children develop a theory of mind at different stages of their growth. For instance, children understand the desires of others before understanding their belief. They also know about the differences in people's desires for the same object before becoming aware of the differences in others' beliefs about the same object (Wellman and Liu 524). Nonetheless, children understand the diversity of beliefs among various people before gaining the knowledge of false belief. Therefore, understanding complex mental states of others is a long process that requires significant interactions in the sociocultural environment for one to learn the interests, desires, and motivations of others.

The Development of Theory of Mind in Sociocultural Environments

Indeed, the mind of an individual is the product of his or her sociocultural environment because the individual develops a theory of mind from their interactions with others in the social environment. People understand the desires, attitudes, emotions, beliefs, and intents of others by observing and learning from their social environments. Children develop intuitive and evaluative understanding of the functional perspectives of other people's messages. As they grow, they develop an advanced understanding of the complex mental states of others through reflection and interpretation of beliefs. Their interactions with peers and adults enable them to develop visual perceptions about others; hence creating meaning about those visual perceptions and developing an understanding of their intentions, attitudes, and beliefs. Therefore, social interactions and cultural beliefs encourage the development of one's theory of mind.


Astington, Janet W. “The future of theory-of-mind research: Understanding motivational states, the role of language, and real-world consequences.” Child Development, 72 (2001): 685–687.

Brooks, Rechele and Andrew N. Meltzoff. “Connecting the dots from infancy to childhood: A longitudinal study connecting gaze following, language, and explicit theory of mind.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 130 (2015): 67–78

Carlson, Stephanie M., Laura J. Claxton and Louis J. Moses. “The Relation between Executive Function and Theory of Mind is More Than Skin Deep.” Journal of Cognition and Development, 16.1 (2015): 186-197.

Filippova, Eva and Janet Wilde Astington. “Children’s Understanding of Social-Cognitive and Social-Communicative Aspects of Discourse Irony.” Child Development, 81.3 (2010): 913-928.

Hughes, Claire and Rory T. Devine. “Individual Differences in Theory of Mind from Preschool to Adolescence: Achievements and Directions.” Child Development Perspectives, 9.3 (2015): 149–153.

Moll, H., & Tomasello, M. “Level 1 perspective-taking at 24 months of age.” British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24 (2006): 603–613.

Wellman, Henry M. and David Liu. “Scaling of Theory-of-Mind Tasks.” Child Development, 75.2(2004): 523-541.

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