Cross-cultural research in child development is still very young compared to the body of literature in this area. While developmental researchers are trying to understand human development in general, most of the research is limited to studies from Western cultures. Theory of mind (ToM) is a topic in child development which has received considerable research attention in the last 3 decades (for reviews see Flavell & Miller, 1998; Wellman & Liu, 2004). However as with many other developmental questions, the majority of research on children’s developing theory of mind has focused on Western cultures. In addition to that, much of the research on theory of mind to date has focused on one aspect of this multi-faceted phenomenon called false belief understanding. While false belief understanding is important to children’s understanding of human behaviour, it is not the sole indicator of ToM. And although a mature theory of mind relies on multiple mental state concepts such as desires, intentions, knowledge, belief and emotions, a good deal of the developmental research that has focused on mental states other than false belief, has typically investigated only one subset of the range of mental state concepts. Theory of mind research therefore has come under fire with respect to assessment validity and generalizability across cultures (Bloom & German, 2000; Liu, Wellman, Tardif, & Sabbagh, 2008).
Although much research on theory of mind has traditionally used one or two tasks to assess children’s understanding of the mind, Wellman and Liu (2004) developed a multi task scale to assess children’s ToM understanding. In several studies carried out in the United States and Australia, researchers have found a robust sequence of ToM scale steps that children go through in gaining an understanding of mind. A first cross cultural study with Chinese children revealed similarities as well as differences among Chinese and American children in developing theory of mind concepts. Based on these findings and a broader recognition that the developmental sequence of ToM understanding is likely to be influenced by the child’s cultural context, the purpose of my thesis was to investigate ToM development by (a) using this comprehensive ToM scale as well as individual theory of mind tasks and (b) testing samples of children from a non-Western culture of Iran.
In my first two studies I directly compared ToM conceptual development among 3 to 9 year old Iranian and Australian children. Results showed similarities as well as differences in development of these concepts. Firstly, Iranian children at all ages preceded their Australian peers in understanding knowledge access, while being behind in diverse belief understanding. Also Iranian children outperformed their Australian counterparts in understanding the relatively advanced concept of sarcasm. More importantly there was no difference between the two cultural groups in overall ToM understanding (reflected in composite scores), which shows neither cultural group was disadvantaged in terms of theory of mind understanding. In the third study, I took a more precise look at Iranian children’s acquisition of two key ToM concepts: knowledge and belief. Here I found that Iranian children’s performance in all knowledge tasks was more advanced than previously published data from American and Canadian children. In the final study, I looked at parental strategies that may be related to children’s theory of mind development. With a procedure similar to Ruffman et al (1999) I presented several scenarios to parents which described daily situations that they may face with their children. I found that Iranian parents reported using two disciplinary strategies not observed in Ruffman et al’s sample, which I called Silence and Social Norms. Correlational analyses of parent reported disciplinary strategies and their children’s ToM understanding revealed that parents’ use of the Silence strategy was negatively associated with their children’s understanding of diverse beliefs, a result that may help answer our previous question about why Iranian and Australian children’s performance on this task differs. Several other significant associations were found between parental strategies and children’s ToM understanding in Iran, in particular, children’s ToM understanding was higher amongst those whose parents reported that they tended to Discuss issues when disciplining their children,
In general, this thesis contributes two important elements to theory of mind research which have largely been neglected in the literature: a more comprehensive picture of ToM development instead of only false belief, and a cross-cultural perspective.