The development of social cognition - Cognition and development

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

The development of social cognition
Cognition and development


Social cognition concerns the mental processes by which information about oneself and others is processed and understood. Selman (1980) devised role-taking theory as an explanation of perspective taking, the ability to comprehend from another’s viewpoint. The theory was devised from children’s answers to moral dilemmas and has five levels: egocentric viewpoint (3—6 years), social informational role taking (6—8 years), self-reflective role taking (8—10 years), mutual role taking (10—12 years) and social and conventional system role taking (12—15+ years). The theory sees children move from not realising others have different experiences and feelings to understanding the processes involved in others developing different viewpoints, by adopting the outlook of others to experience their feelings and thoughts.

Theory of Mind (ToM) concerns the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others, with some seeing autism, a developmental disability characterised by problems in communicating and relationship building, as linked to a lack of a ToM. This was researched through the Sally-Anne test, a method of assessing an individual’s social cognitive ability to attribute false beliefs to others. ToM is not present at birth but develops over time and is similar to Piaget’s idea of how children move from seeing the world only from their own perspective to being able to perceive other viewpoints.


Fig 11.4 Selman conducted research based on interpersonal dilemmas, such as that of Holly, who breaks her promise not to climb trees in order to save a cat

Focal study

Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) assessed whether a lack of ToM could explain autism. 20 autistic children with an average age of 12 years, 14 Down’s syndrome children with an average age of 11 years and 27 normally developed children with an average age of 4.5 years witnessed a doll, Sally, place a marble in her basket. While she was away, Anne, another doll, hid the marble in her box. When Sally returned the children were asked: where is the marble? (reality question), where was the marble originally? (memory question) and where will Sally look for it? (belief question). All children passed the reality and memory questions. 85 per cent of normally developed children and 86 per cent of Down’s syndrome children passed the belief question, but only 20 per cent of autistic children. This suggests that a lack of a ToM is a plausible explanation for autism, as autistic children cannot attribute beliefs to others.


• Selman (1971) found children aged 4—6 years made a prediction concerning a child’s behaviour in a situation they had information about but the child had not, based on the information they were given. This suggests they were in the egocentric viewpoint, in line with Selman’s theory, as they could not see the situation from the child’s perspective.

• Gurucharri & Selman (1982) performed a 5-year longitudinal study, using Selman’s methodology of interpersonal dilemmas, to assess the development of perspective-taking abilities in 41 children. 40 of the children developed perspective taking, as predicted by Selman’s stages, supporting his theory.

• Shatz et al. (1983) reported that children under 4 years old can differentiate between different mental states. At 2 years of age they can name emotional states, and by 3 years of age they can demonstrate knowledge of what thinking is, suggesting that acquisition of a ToM is a developmental process.

Positive evaluation

Image The developmental claims of Selman’s model are supported by research evidence: individuals progress gradually to higher stages over time, with little evidence of any regression to lower stages.

Image The modularity view, which sees ToM as located within specific brain areas, suggests that ToM is an innate, biological process, which matures in set stages at set times and is not affected by learning.

Image A lack of ToM provides plausible reasons for many symptoms of autism. For example, not being able to understand others’ thoughts may explain the difficulties autistic children often have with communicating via language.

Negative evaluation

Image Selman’s theory is criticised for focusing too much on the effect of cognitive development on perspective taking and social cognition and downplaying the role of non-cognitive factors.

Image There may be more to having a ToM than passing false belief tasks. Children below the age of 2 years, who generally fail false belief tests, can initiate pretend play and understand the pretending of others, suggesting an ability to understand the mental state of others.

Image A lack of ToM should affect the ability to perform complex cognitive tasks, but some autistic children have advanced mathematical skills, suggesting a lack of ToM cannot explain autism.

Practical application

Perspective taking can be used to resolve conflicts by reducing aggression levels, through encouraging individuals to empathise with other people’s feelings and viewpoints.