The Role of Empathy and Parent Mental State Talk in Theory-of-Mind Development: A Longitudinal Investigation
Theory of mind is an important aspect of social understanding and the development of this skill is of much interest. Theory of mind describes the ability to infer the mental states of others and apply this knowledge. Despite significant research into the roles that related constructs such as language and emotion understanding play in theory-of-mind development, the construct of empathy has received little attention. It is of interest to look at the association between empathy and theory of mind, in the context of known social correlates such as parent mental state talk. This longitudinal study aimed to investigate the relation between empathy and theory of mind, and to determine whether it was mediated by parent mental state talk. The current study involved 55 children and their parents. These children were involved in a previous study by Aitken (2019) when they had an average age of 20.5 months. Aitken’s study assessed child prosociality, self-concept, empathy, and language ability, and parent’s use of mental state talk. The current study saw these children again when they were 4.6 years on average. Child false-belief understanding, empathy, emotion understanding, prosociality, and language ability was assessed, and parents’ mental state talk was assessed again. Correlation and mediation analyses revealed three main findings. First, early empathy was not related to later theory of mind, second, empathy and theory of mind were not associated at age 4.6, and third, both empathy and theory of mind were associated with parent mental state talk at the later time point. Additionally, results showed that children’s later prosociality mediated the association between parents’ early references to child emotions and later child emotion understanding. Furthermore, within the later time point, the association between parents’ references to child cognitions and child false-belief understanding, was mediated by children’s general language ability.
Advisor: Taumoepeau, Mele
Degree Name: Master of Arts
Degree Discipline: Psychology
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Empathy; Theory of Mind; Parent Mental State Talk
Research Type: Thesis