Childhood Theory of Mind Predicts Adolescent Risk Adjustment

Theory of mind in children and adolescence risk adjustment

A new article published in demonstrates that children who pass an advanced test of theory of mind show better risk adjustment seven years later during adolescence.

The Importance of Risk Adjustment During Adolescence

Successfully adjusting one’s behavior to risks in the environment is an essential skill during adolescence because it helps individuals make informed decisions, avoid harmful behaviors, and manage challenging situations. Adolescence is a period of transition from childhood to adulthood. During this time, individuals face a wide range of physical, emotional, and social changes.

To respond to these changes successfully, adolescents need to be able to evaluate the potential risks and benefits of their actions and make appropriate choices. Risk adjustment involves assessing the likelihood and possible consequences of a particular action or behavior, and then making a decision based on that evaluation.

In a unique study, researchers now discovered that adolescents’ ability to adjust their behavior to changing risks can be traced back to their social cognitive skills during childhood, specifically, their “theory of mind.”

What is the Theory of Mind?

Theory of mind is a term used to describe the ability to attribute mental states, such as beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions, to oneself and others. This cognitive ability allows us to understand that others have thoughts, feelings, and intentions that are different from our own. It is an essential aspect of human social cognition and is thought to develop in early childhood.

The development of theory of mind has been widely studied, and there is a general consensus that it emerges around the age of 4 or 5 years old. This developmental process involves the ability to distinguish between mental states and physical states, to understand that mental states can be true or false, and to recognize that different people can have different mental states.

Overall, theory of mind is an essential component of human social interaction, allowing us to navigate complex social relationships and understand the thoughts and feelings of those around us. Its development and function have been extensively studied and have important implications for a wide range of fields, including psychology, neuroscience, and education.

Theory of mind

The Sally-Anne Test of Theory of Mind

The Sally-Anne test is a classic method used to assess a person’s theory of mind. The test involves a simple story that is typically presented in the form of a puppet show or picture book. The story involves two characters, Sally and Anne, who have a basket and a box. Sally puts a marble in her basket and leaves the room, while Anne takes the marble out of the basket and puts it in the box. The test taker is then asked where Sally will look for the marble when she returns to the room.

The correct answer is that Sally will look for the marble in the basket, where she originally put it. Thus, to answer correctly, the test taker must understand that Sally does not know that the marble has been moved to the box by Anne while she was away.

The Sally-Ann test is a widely recognized and accepted measure of theory of mind, and it has been used in numerous studies to evaluate this cognitive ability. In a new research article, the researchers Dimitris I. Tsomokos and Eirini Flouri utilized a unique dataset of 9,575 individuals from the UK who took the test at ages 5 and 7.

Unlike classic versions of the test that typically use storytelling to describe the situation, the test was administered as a vignette in a socially demanding situation. This increased difficulty resulted in far fewer children than usual passing the test. Therefore, the researchers described those who passed the test at both time points (i.e., at 5 and 7 years of age) as having “superior social cognitive abilities.”

Theory of Mind and Risk Adjustment in the “Cambridge Gambling Task”

When the participants in the current study reached the age of 14 years, their ability to adjust their behavior under varying risks was tested using the “Cambridge Gambling Task.” In this task, participants played a game on a computer screen where they had to repeatedly guess which color box a hidden token is behind and bet some of their points on their guess.

They started with 100 points and aimed to get as many points as possible. The proportion of red to blue boxes changed randomly during the game to test how participants make decisions in the light of new information. Risk adjustment measures how participants change their bets when the chance of winning or losing changes.

With the theory of mind data from participants’ childhood and risk adjustment data from their adolescence at hand, the researchers tested whether those who showed superior social cognitive abilities during childhood also better adjusted their behavior to risk during adolescence. Their results supported this hypothesis. Indeed, even when controlling for various demographic variables such as the socio-economic backgrounds of participants, their verbal intelligence, or psychological problems, those who had passed both theory of mind tasks during childhood outperformed their peers in risk adjustment during adolescence.

The implications of theory of mind

Social Implications

The findings from the study may have important implications. By developing strong risk adjustment skills during adolescence, individuals are better equipped to make informed decisions, avoid harmful behaviors, and manage challenging situations. Such skills can lead to better outcomes in many areas, including physical health, mental health, academic achievement, and social relationships. The results from the present study suggest that early interventions to strengthen children’s theory of mind may increase people’s risk adjustment skills during adolescence.

Reference to the Study

Tsomokos, D. I. & Flouri, E. (2023). Superior social cognitive abilities in childhood are associated with better reward-seeking strategies in adolescence: evidence for a Social-Motivational Flexibility Model., 1(1),