Theory of Mind and Its Application to Social Work


The chosen theory for consideration in this paper is the theory of mind (ToM), originally developed by David Premack and Guyn Woodruff in 1978. ToM has gained traction over the years, especially in the field of psychology. Psychologists rely on this theory to assess an individual’s “degree of capacity for empathy and understanding of others” (Radecki et al. 145). ToM has proven effective when it comes to solving conflicts and enhancing social skills. Therefore, this paper seeks to give an overview of the theory of mind as discussed by different scholars, how it is being applied, and, by extension, to social work as a profession. In essence, social workers use ToM to help clients deal with anxiety by ensuring they focus their attention and remain non-judgmental throughout the session.

Overview of the Chosen Theory

The theory of mind exists to help people understand and view others as unique beings with beliefs and desires different from their own. According to Ă–zbaran et al., this understanding allows people to engage in a continuous social interaction as they interpret the mental states and, at the same time, infer the behaviors of those around them (119). The theory has been studied and researched by different scholars over the years. In the field of psychology, for instance, the focus has been on studying the neural basis, developmental pathway, and the limitations of ToM.

Scholars have also focused more of their attention on how the theory of mind develops. For instance, Mirski and Arkadiusz’s study of ToM led them to conclude that people are not born with the same knowledge (15). The same views were echoed in the study by Precke et al. who highlighted several developmental skills that infants require to develop their ToM (3). They further noted that the process of attaining the required level of theory mind starts with developing the capability of understanding attention and other people’s intentions.

Additionally, attention is the basic requirement of developing a complete theory of mind. The process requires one to recognize that seeing is more than just looking; it entails directing one’s attention to specific objects and people (Özbaran et al. 117). A good example is joint attention which applies well to social work. This type of attention requires two people to focus their minds on the same item of interest. In my case, joint attention was utilized when helping my younger sibling develop the ability to process my mental state by recognizing that the object (the television) was something that was of interest to me. Özbaran et al. also identified imitating others as an important requirement of building the theory of mind (119). By imitating others, one essentially recognizes that other people have unique beliefs and desires.

ToM has been applied extensively with the notable one being in understanding autism. According to research, it helps people understand that children and adults with autism find it difficult to second-guess others’ motivations, intentions or hidden agendas (Özbaran et al. 120). However, this does not mean that such individuals lack empathy. Similarly, autistic people, according to ToM, encounter difficulties when reading body language and subtle facial expressions. For instance, it is hard for such individuals to detect whether raised eyebrows are signs of surprise or disapproval. In the end, autistic people will most likely misinterpret others’ motivations or desires.

Another example of how this theory is being applied is the use of false-belief task method which is commonly used by psychologists. The aim of performing the false belief tasks is to ensure children are able to make inferences about what others are thinking. Simply put, children may perceive or believe something is true but they need to understand that others may not be privy to this truth. One of most frequently used false belief task is the Sally-Anne test, which measures a person’s cognitive capability to infer false beliefs to others (Takenoshita et al. 549). This test involves showing children two dolls, Sally and Anne. Sally is seen placing an item in the basket and immediately leaves the house. Anne then comes in and takes the marble and places it in a box. The children watching the scenario are then asked to state the place that Sally will most likely go looking the item. The goal for the test is to allow to children to assume Sally’s position but, at the same time, understand that her reasoning differs greatly from their own.

Application to Social Work Profession

Theory of mind plays a critical role to the social work profession, especially when helping clients deal with anxiety. For a social worker, ToM will be used together with several mindfulness-based approaches to teach clients about anxiety, how to recognize it, and move towards reducing it. Mindfulness-based approaches ensure clients develop the necessary skills to focus their attention on the problem at hand by eliminating negative thoughts and feelings. However, to achieve this, social workers tend to use their knowledge and understanding of attention from ToM’s point of view. By using this theory, one will be able to encourage clients to selectively focus their attention on a specific issue. Overall, the aim of combining ToM and mindfulness-based approaches is to help patients reduce bias, focus their attention, and remain non-judgmental in an attempt to reduce anxiety.

Works Cited

Mirski, Robert, and Arkadiusz Gut. “Action-Based Versus Cognitivist Perspectives on Socio-Cognitive Development: Culture, Language and Social Experience within the Two Paradigms.” Synthese, vol. 197, 2020, pp. 1-27. Web.

Ă–zbaran, Burcu, et al. “Theory of Mind and Emotion Regulation Difficulties in Children with ADHD.” Psychiatry Research, vol. 270, no. 6, pp. 117-122. Web.

Preckel, Katrin, et al. “On the Interaction of Social Affect and Cognition: Empathy, Compassion and Theory of Mind.” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, vol. 19, 2018, pp. 1-6. Web.

Radecki, Marcin A., et al. “Theory of Mind and Psychosocial Characteristics in Older Men.” Psychology and Aging, vol. 34, no. 1, 2019, 145-151. Web.

Takenoshita, Shintaro, et al. “Sally–Anne Test and Regional Cerebral Blood Flow in Alzheimer’s Disease Dementia.” Psychogeriatrics, vol. 20, 2020, pp. 549-556. Web.

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PsychologyWriting. "Theory of Mind and Its Application to Social Work." September 19, 2023.