A Critique of the Theory of Mind (ToM) Test

by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

The basic Theory of Mind (ToM) test was first developed by Wimmer and Perner in 1983, and then modified by Leslie and Frith in 1988. Wimmer and Perner used dolls, while Leslie and Frith used human actors. Regardless of the version, researchers have always come to the same conclusion regarding the results of the test.

I’ve always had my doubts about this conclusion.

The most common form of the ToM test is called the Sally-Anne Test. The ostensible purpose of the test is to measure a person’s ability to attribute false beliefs to other people. In the original version, the clinician uses two dolls, Sally and Anne. Sally has a basket, and Anne has a box. Sally puts a marble in her basket and leaves the scene of the action. Anne takes the marble out of Sally’s basket and puts it in her box. When Sally returns, the clinician asks the child where Sally will look for the marble.

To pass the test, a child must say that Sally will mistakenly look in her own basket first, evincing the belief that Sally is unaware that the marble has been moved. A child who fails the test will say that Sally will look in Anne’s box, where the marble is actually located. In a 1985 study of ToM in autism by Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan M. Leslie, and Uta Frith, 80% of the autistic children failed this test. The conclusion drawn is that the autistic children have an impaired (or non-existent) ToM and cannot understand that other people have information and beliefs different from their own.

I am very bothered by this conclusion. Very, very bothered.

I know that most neuro-typical researchers believe they have a “normal” ToM and can understand autistic people rather well. Needless to say, I’m quite skeptical. It’s not rocket science to know that you can read people who are like you, but have a harder time reading people who are unlike you. I would much rather hear an autistic person describe his or her own experience than hear a neuro-typical researcher making statements about how autistic people view the world.

Moreover, I am very suspicious about someone drawing a single conclusion from a psychological test. People are so complex that one child’s answer may be due to a large variety of factors, some of which may not ever have entered the mind of the researcher.

I had an insight into alternative reasons for a “failed” Sally-Anne test when I was at my OT visit this week. During one of the exercises, the OT and I were talking about why I always move my head when I move my eyes, and why I always have to turn my whole body to look at something.  Until I started seeing my OT, it had never crossed my mind that I might look at something without moving my head, or that I might turn my head without turning my whole body. It occurred to me that a certain kind of hypervigilance is at work here, and that this hypervigilance is a feature of Asperger’s Syndrome.

For me, the visual and auditory world is a chaotic, ever-changing place. My eyes are always darting around, trying to make sure that the world is still in order. My sensory processing makes the world seem vast and overwhelming. To me, change is a given. I never expect anything to stay in one place. I’m so attuned to small details that I’m keenly aware when something has been moved, when a pattern has been interrupted, or when symmetry turns into asymmetry. It happens constantly. I like to organize things because it gives me a sense of control over a world that feels like it’s changing in strange and unexpected ways.

So when an autistic child is asked “Where will Sally look for the marble?” perhaps that child is so used to the world being chaotic and overwhelming that he or she automatically assumes that Sally would never look in the place she last saw it. To the contrary: she’d automatically look somewhere else. Being given only two choices—a basket and a box—the child picks the box. Given how the child perceives the world, this conclusion is perfectly rational. It doesn’t indicate a poor ToM at all. It simply indicates that the child believes that Sally processes sensory input like he or she does. Just because the odds are against Sally being autistic doesn’t mean that the child’s conclusion is wrong. The child is simply drawing a conclusion based on his or her own experience.

In this, the child who thinks that Sally will look in the box is no different from the researcher who assumes that that Sally will look in the basket. The “correct” answer is based on the researcher’s own sensory experience. To someone without sensory processing difficulties, the world appears a more orderly and manageable place. A neuro-typical person would figure that the marble would be where he or she had left it. It’s not surprising then, that neuro-typical children “pass” this test 100% of the time.

A better test might be to have Anne move the marble to an unknown place and ask the child whether Sally will think the marble has been moved. If the answer is yes, the reasearcher might then ask, “Where would she look?” If asked that question, the child might just say, “She’ll look everywhere she can.”  That’s the answer I would have given as a child, because my experience was that nothing stayed the same for very long.  If I had taken the test, I would have gotten dizzy and disoriented just thinking of all the possibilities for where the marble might end up. I’d probably have ended up crying in frustration.

Moreover, as I reflect upon how I would experience the Sally-Anne test as an adult, I’m certain that with my auditory processing difficulties, I would need to write down the sequence of events in order to make sure I understood what was being asked. It’s very difficult for me to keep track of auditory information, and I generally need to make it visual in order to more easily grasp it and remember it. If I were to begin plotting out the sequence of events in writing, I’m virtually certain that a diagnostician would conclude that I was attempting to figure out the answer by deductive logic, rather than by using ToM. That diagnostician would be wrong. I would not be attempting to arrive at an answer; I would be attempting to make sure that I understood the question.

If researchers were to keep in the mind that ways that autistic people experience the sensory world, the results might not imply impaired ToM, but a different way of processing sensory information. The results might even imply that autism is a sensory processing condition, and that many of its features derive from sensory sensitivity, problems with sensory integration, and overload.

At least, that’s how it seems to me.


Baron-Cohen, Simon, Alan M. Leslie, and Uta Frith. “Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’?” Cognition 21, no.1 (1985): 37-46. http://autismtruths.org/pdf/3.%20Does%20the%20autistic%20child%20have%20a%20theory%20of%20mind_SBC.pdf.

© 2009 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg



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