- Theory of mind (ToM) allows individuals to understand the thoughts, beliefs, and emotions of others.
- Recently released ALSPAC data provides valuable insights on the long-term effects of ToM.
- Childhood ToM predicts better life outcomes, such as higher education attainment and better social skills.
- Investing in primary education can improve childhood ToM and lead to better life outcomes.
The ability to understand the thoughts, beliefs, desires, and emotions of others is known as theory-of-mind (ToM). It is an important aspect of child development and is one of the hallmarks of human cognition. Disparities in ToM abilities develop early in life and tend to persist throughout adulthood.
Extensive research has been conducted on the evolution of ToM abilities in childhood and its correlation with psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. On the other hand, the understanding of the lasting impact of childhood ToM on long-term life outcomes is still limited. This is a concerning omission since gaining a deeper understanding of the lifelong implications of childhood ToM is crucial to make a compelling case for the necessity of early interventions aimed at enhancing this crucial cognitive skill.
Why Is Our Knowledge About the Long-Term Advantages of Childhood ToM So Limited?
In the past, lack of data had been a significant obstacle in studying the long-term impact of childhood ToM. Despite the existence of several comprehensive longitudinal studies that follow individuals from childhood into adulthood, ToM has not typically been included among the cognitive skills measured in childhood; such studies generally concentrate on more conventional academic skills, such as literacy and numeracy.
However, the recent release of data from the United Kingdom provides a rare opportunity to examine the connection between disparities in ToM in childhood and crucial life outcomes. The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) is an ongoing interdisciplinary study that follows a group of children born in the early 1990s in the southwest of England. ALSPAC measured children’s theory-of-mind ability at the age of eight, along with their mathematical and verbal abilities. The ALSPAC children were then followed throughout their childhood and into adulthood.
Insights from the ALSPAC Study
In my recent publication, "Cognitive Skills, Strategic Sophistication, and Life Outcomes," I use the novel data from the ALSPAC study to highlight the critical importance of childhood ToM in predicting adult outcomes. My research shows that having a strong ToM at the age of eight years old predicts higher levels of educational attainment at age eighteen. Additionally, the positive effect of ToM on a child's ability to focus in the classroom and perform better in their future studies accounts for approximately half of the total impact of childhood ToM on later academic achievement.
Furthermore, childhood ToM is also associated with enhanced adult social skills, higher educational participation, and lower fertility in young adulthood. The importance of childhood ToM in predicting these key life outcomes is robust when controlling for verbal and mathematical ability and for a host of early childhood environmental factors, such as neighborhood quality in childhood and parental education.
A Surprising Advantage of Investing in Education
The role of childhood ToM ability in predicting key life outcomes highlights the significance of early interventions aimed at developing this critical cognitive skill. The ALSPAC study provides evidence that investing in primary education can improve childhood ToM ability, with the positive impact concentrated among children from advantaged backgrounds, as measured by relative family income. This is an important finding, as it suggests that investing in primary education can have a positive impact on children’s ToM ability, which in turn can lead to better life outcomes.
Fe, E., Gill, D., & Prowse, V. (2022) Cognitive skills, strategic sophistication, and life outcomes, Journal of Political Economy, 130(10), 2643–2704