Pirates and Cheese Sandwiches: Children’s Thoughts About Thinking

Thinking about other people’s minds and their thoughts in relation to our own thoughts is a fundamental skill in socialisation.

“Theory of mind” is a phrase that’s used in psychology to refer to our ability to understand that other people have beliefs that are different to our own.

But how do we actually uncover other people’s thoughts? Rebecca Saxe and colleagues from MIT have demonstrated amazing lab work that demonstrates a specific part of our brain that which is engaged when make judgements about other people’s thoughts.

In past research, psychologists have estimated that theory of mind kicks in around age four, and this has been measured by children’s responses to behavioural tasks.

A typical example is to show a child a box of crayons and ask them what they think is inside. You would guess that the child will say crayons, and you’d be right. Then you open the box and show them that the box actually contains candles. You then tell the child that you’re going to show the box to someone else who hasn’t been in the room with you, and ask the child what they think the person will say. A child who hasn’t yet developed theory of mind will say candles.

Critics of this kind of research say that it fails to recognise a fundamental flaw in toddlers – that they lie. Potentially, it also overlooks the fact that most people in research experiments tend to behave in the way that they think the researcher wants them to behave.

Saxe’s research is so interesting because now we can actually see what’s happening in the human brain when we think about other people’s thinking. There is a spot behind the right ear called the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ) which is solely dedicated to thinking about other people’s thinking.

Saxe explains in her TED talk that theory of mind for interpreting others’ actions does indeed kick in somewhere between the ages of three and five.

In her demonstration, there’s a pirate named Ivan who has a cheese sandwich. Ivan decides he needs a drink to go with his sandwich, so he places it on top of a pirate chest. While he is away, the wind comes and blows the sandwich onto the grass. A second pirate, Joshua, comes along and he puts his sandwich on the pirate chest. Just like Ivan, Joshua then goes away to get a drink.

Then Ivan returns (and at this point, the child is asked which sandwich he thinks Ivan will take). The three year old immediately thinks that Ivan will choose the sandwich that’s on the ground (because that’s his sandwich and he should know it’s his sandwich).

The five year old on the other hand, thinks Ivan will take the sandwich that’s on the pirate chest. He understands then that other people can have false beliefs, and the consequences associated with this.

Saxe then takes this a step further, and shows us how this transfers into moral judgements. The three year old determines that Ivan was being naughty for taking the other sandwich (Ivan just didn’t want to eat the one that was dirty on the ground).

Interestingly, the five year old also thinks that Ivan was being naughty and should get into trouble. It’s not until age seven that children demonstrate moral reasoning that’s closer to what an adult might say (Ivan shouldn’t get into trouble because he didn’t know that was Joshua’s sandwich and not his own).

We have a specialised section in our brains just for about moral judgements, but it takes a long time to develop. This offers thought-provoking information about how the RTPJ continues to develop throughout adolescence, and what we know about adolescents’ ability to plan, estimate risk and think about others.

In order to attribute blame and decide punishment (whether parent to a teenager or a member of a jury) our brains have a lot of work to do in figuring out what was someone else thinking. Is it ‘fair’ to punish a teenager for taking a risk that s/he genuinely and developmentally didn’t recognise was a risk?

Early neurocognitive research suggests that when making risky decisions, adolescents who find it difficult to resist peer pressure tended to demonstrate higher levels of activity in the RTPJ. This level of brain activity was then a significant mediator of the relationship between peer pressure and greater risk-taking.

Thus, the ability to think about others’ thinking may have a unique and direct influence on adolescents’ vulnerability to peer influence on risk-taking.

  • Koster-Hale, J., Saxe, R., Dungan, J., & Young, L. L. (2013). Decoding moral judgments from neural representations of intentions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(14), 5648-5653.
  • Peake, S. J., Dishion, T. J., Stormshak, E. A., Moore, W. E., & Pfeifer, J. H. (2013). Risk-taking and social exclusion in adolescence: Neural mechanisms underlying peer influences on decision-making. NeuroImage.


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