The self in social cognition

Introspecting at 4 years

Relating to my work on self-regulation, this research theme seeks to explore the role of children’s ability to reflect on their own mental states (metacognition) on the development of their capacity to reason about other minds (theory of mind).

Simulation theorists argue that we come to understand other’s mental states by reasoning by analogy from our own minds. This theory suggests that metacognitive self-reflection is prerequisite to ToM. Moreover, to the extent that our own perspective is salient, self-control may also be prerequisite. We may need to suppress our own egocentric perspective to represent the perspective of others. However, the role of metacognition in the ‘developmental enrichment’ of ToM has been little explored.

Dr Mariel Symeoniduo, PhD

Mini lab PhD graduate Mariel Symeonidou completed a longitudinal project investigating the links between metacognition, self-control and theory of mind to address this gap in the literature.  Working in collaboration with theory of mind expert Dr. Martin Doherty, University of East Anglia, we found that certainty monitoring at ~3 years, alongside developments in self-control at ~4.5 years, were predictive of ToM competence at ~5 years. This result suggests that the tendency to engage with own current mental states can aid in the development of an understanding of other’s mental states and behaviour. However, self-control statistically and developmentally mediated the relationship between metacognition and ToM. The implication is that basic forms of metacognition may provide the ‘developmental enrichment’ necessary to think about thinking, and when self-control is sufficiently developed, this thinking can be extended to complex reasoning about other minds.

We have also extended this research cross-culturally, in collaboration with Dr. Ai Mizokawa, Nagoya University, Japan. Cultural comparisons suggest that an understanding of other minds may develop sooner in the independent settings, whereas self-control may develop sooner in interdependent settings. From a western lens, this pattern might be considered paradoxical, since there is a robust positive relationship between theory of mind (ToM) and self-control in western samples. In independent cultures, an emphasis on one’s own mind offers a clear route to ‘simulate’ other minds, and self-control may be required to set aside one’s own perspective to represent the perspective of others. However, in interdependent cultures, social norms are considered the key catalyst for behaviour, and metacognitive reflection and/or suppression of one’s own perspective may not be necessary. The cross-cultural generalizability of the western developmental route to ToM is therefore questionable.

To address this, the current study used an age-matched cross-sectional sample to contrast 56 Japanese and 56 Scottish 3- to 6-year-old’s metacognition, ToM and self-control skills. In contrast to the individualistic perspective dominant in Scotland, in Japan, the word for self, jibun, translates as “one’s share of the shared life space”. We replicated the expected cultural advantages for ToM (Scotland > Japan) and self-control (Japan > Scotland). Following the predictions of simulation theory, we find that the development of self-control mediates the link between metacognition and theory of mind in Scotland. However, this model does not predict Japanese ToM. This provides direct evidence to suggest individualistic mechanisms do not capture the developmental mechanism underlying ToM in Japan, highlighting a bias in our understanding of ToM development.

Both papers are now in the process of publication. Watch this space!