The Theory of Mind Atlas

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The Theory of Mind Atlas

Tiffany L. Hutchins & Patricia A. Prelock © 2016

All entries in the Theory of Mind Atlas (ToMA) were developed for use with the Theory of Mind Inventory-2 (ToMI-2) for the purposes of explaining theory of mind in the conduct of research and clinical practice. This document may be downloaded, adapted, and shared for professional purposes provided that the names and copyright appearing in this header are retained.

Item 11: Appearances can be deceiving. For example, when seeing a candle shaped like an apple, some people first assume that the object is an apple. Given the chance to examine it more closely, people typically change their mind and decide that the object is actually a candle. If my child was in this situation, my child would understand that it was not the object that changed, but rather his or her ideas about the object that changed.

Subscale(s): Basic .

This item is intended to tap the appearance-reality (AR) distinction which, at its core, is the understanding of representational change. “As adults we change our ideas about the world, and we also know that we change them” (Gopnik & Astington, 1988, p. 26). The AR distinction is important because it occurs in a wide range of everyday circumstances and it is crucial for successful adaptations to the human world. As Flavell, Flavell, and Green (1983) explain:

“The deceit may be deliberately engineered by another person; the person intentionally misleads us – through the use of lies, facades, disguises, and other artifices. Very often, however, there is no intention to deceive. The time or distance seemed longer to us than it really was; the sun looks like it moves around the earth but it really does not…Although we may not know that appearances have in fact deceived us in any specific cognitive situation, we do know as a general fact that such deception is always possible. That is, although always susceptible to being deceived by appearances, we have acquired the metacognitive knowledge that appearance-reality differences are always among life’s possibilities” (pp. 95-96).
Research on the AR distinction reveals that the development of AR knowledge in typical children is protracted (Flavell, 1985; Flavell et al., 1983; Friend & Davis, 1993). Three-year-olds have some ability to make the distinction in specific and concrete task situations (Banerjee, 1977; Moll & Tomasello, 2011; Taylor & Flavell, 1984; Flavell et al., 1983; Woolley & Wellman, 1990) but performance is “precarious and unstable at this age” (Flavell et al., 1983, p. 114). AR knowledge improves dramatically at four years of age when children are able to consider alternative representations of the same object (Gopnik & Astington, 1988) and this is the point in development that children are formally credited with this ability which provides good justification for its construal as a Basic theory of mind competency (Gopnik & Astington, 1988). Nevertheless, facility with the AR distinction continues to develop. “Although 6- and 7- year olds can easily manage the simple appearance-reality tasks that 3-year-olds fail, their ability to reflect on and talk about appearances, realities, and appearance-reality distinctions remains very limited. In contrast, the appearance-reality and related knowledge of 11- to 12-year-olds and especially college students is both richly structured and highly accessible” (Flavell, 1985, p. 424).
Performance on AR tasks is positively correlated with language ability (Courtin & Melot, 2005; Deak, Ray, & Brenneman, 2003; Sapp, Lee, & Muir, 2000) although young children’s difficulty with the task does not appear to be driven by an inability to understand what is being asked (Taylor & Hort, 1990). Performance on AR tasks is also related to executive functioning and the role of inhibitory control (Bialystok & Senman, 2004) and working memory (Flavell, 1985; Rice, Koinis, Sullivan, Tager-Flusberg, & Winner, 1997) have received special attention.
The AR distinction in ASD
Limited research has been conducted on the AR distinction in persons with ASD. Baron-Cohen (1989) conducted the most important study on this topic and found that children with ASD showed deficits in AR reasoning but no such deficits were observed in neurotypical and intellectually disabled controls. When performance errors occur, they can be of one of two types. When asked what a candle convincingly constructed to resemble an apple looks like, the child can incorrectly assert “candle”(an error known as intellectual realism). Alternatively, when asked what the object really is, the child can incorrectly assert “apple” (an error known as phenomenism). Interestingly, Baron-Cohen (1989) reported that in his sample of children with ASD, AR errors tended to be of the phenomenism type. This type of error – where the child looks past the true state of affairs and reaches instead for what is available in the perceptual world - has been described as cognition that is more “bottom up” than the task requires (Flavell et al., 1983, p. 99). It is a kind of cognitive “undershoot” where the “child’s processing is captured and aborted by some arresting perceptual experience” (Flavell et al., 1983, p. 100). Consistent with this reasoning, Baron-Cohen (1989) argued that the phenomenism errors characteristic of persons with ASD reflect more general deficits in metarepresentation and metacognition that are emblematic of the disorder.
The AR distinction in ADHD

One might expect children with ADHD to have difficulty with the AR distinction given that its relations to executive functions such as working memory and inhibitory control; both of which are documented deficits in ADHD. We are aware of only two studies, however, that have specifically examined the AR distinction in ADHD. Yang, Zhou, Yao, Su, and McWhinnie (2009) assessed the AR-distinction in typically developing (TD) children and children with ASD and ADHD. They found no differences between the TD and ADHD groups and concluded that deficits in the AR-distinction were specific to ASD. On the other hand, Hutchins et al. (2016) compared TD males, males with high functioning ASD, and males with ADHD (ages 5-14) for their comprehension of the AR distinction using caregiver report (i.e., the Theory of Mind Inventory). Results revealed that males with ADHD performed in the middle range compared to the other groups: they had significantly lower scores compared to the TD group but significantly higher scores than the ASD group. As such, it may be that the understanding of the AR distinction is weak in ADHD, and likely moderated by the amount and quality of executive function resources which are expected to vary with context.

The AR distinction in DoHH

We are aware of only two studies examining the AR distinction in children who are DoHH. Hutchins, Allen, and Schefer (in review) analyzed data for a small sample (n = 12) of oral DoHH children (ages 5 – 11 years) with corrected hearing loss using parent report data (i.e., the Theory of Mind Inventory) and found deficits in the comprehension of the AR distinction in 50% of cases which appeared to be related to more limited access to language in the prelinguistic and toddler years. This result comports well with the findings of Macauley and Ford (2006) who examined the performance of prelingually oral deaf children with cochlear implants on an AR task. The average success rate was 50% in this sample with a mean age of 9-years suggesting an approximate 4-year lag in the development of the appreciation of the AR distinction.


Bailystok, E., & Senman, L. (2004). Executive process in appearance-reality tasks: The role of inhibition of attention and symbolic representation. Child Development, 75(2), 562-579.

Banerjee, M. (1997). Hidden emotions: Preschoolers’ knowledge of appearance-reality and emotion display rules. Social Cognition, 15(2), 107-132.

Baron-Cohen, S. (1989). Are autistic children “behaviorists?” An examination of their mental-physical and appearance-reality distinctions. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 19(4), 579- 600.

Courtin, C., & Melot, A. (2005). Metacognitive development of deaf children: Lessons from the appearance-reality and false belief tasks. Developmental Science, 8(1), 16-25.

Deak, G., Ray, S., & Brenneman, K. (2003). Children’s perseverative appearance-reality errors are related to emerging language skills. Child Development, 74(3), 944-964.

Flavell, J. (1985). The development of children’s knowledge about the appearance-reality distinction. American Psychologist, 41(4), 418-425.

Flavell, J., Flavell, E., & Green, F. (1983). Development of the appearance-reality distinction. Cognitive Psychology, 15, 95-120.

Friend, M., & Davis, T. (1993). Appearance-reality distinction: Children’s understanding of the physical and affective domains. Developmental Psychology, 29(5), 907-914.

Gopnik, A., & Astington, J. (1988). Children’s understanding of representational change and its relation to the understanding of false belief and the appearance-reality distinction. Child Development, 59, 26-37.

Hutchins, T. L. (in review). Using the Theory of Mind Inventory to detect a broad range of theory of mind challenges in children with hearing loss. Deafness and Education International.

Hutchins, T. L., Prelock, P. A., Morris, H., Benner, J., LaVigne, T., & Hoza, B. (2016). Explicit vs. applied theory of mind competence: A comparison of typically developing males, males with ASD, and males with ADHD. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 21, 94-108.

Macauley, C., & Ford, R. (2006). Language and theory-of-mind development in prelingually deafened children with cochlear implants: A preliminary investigation. Cochlear Implants International, 7(1), 1-14.

Moll, H., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Three-year-olds understand appearance and reality – just not about the same object at the same time. Developmental Psychology, 48(4), 1124-1132.

Rice, C., Koinis, K., Sullivan, K., Tager-Flusberg, H., & Winner, E. (1997). When 3-year-olds pass the appearance reality test. Developmental Psychology, 33(1), 54-61.

Sapp, F., Lee, K., & Muir, D. (2000). Three-year-olds difficulty with the appearance-reality distinction: Is it real or is it apparent? Developmental Psychology, 36, 547-560.

Taylor, M., & Flavell, J. (1984). Seeing and believing: Children’s understanding of the distinction between appearance and reality. Child Development, 55(5), 1710-1720.

Taylor, M., & Hort, B. (1990). Can children be trained in making the distinction between appearance and reality? Cognitive Development, 5, 89-99.

Woolley, J., & Wellman, H. (1990). Young children’s understanding of realities, nonrealities, and appearances. Child Development, 61(4), 946-961.

Yang, J., Zhou, S., Yao, S., Su, L.,& McWhinnie, C. (2009).The relationship between theory of mind and executive function in a sample of children from Mainland China. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 40(2), 169–182.

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