Theory of Mind (ToM): An Advanced Overview with Implications for Criminal Justice, Forensic Mental Health, and Legal Professionals

Posted October 25, 2018 | By csponline

Close up photograph of brain cell

By Jerrod Brown, Ph.D.

Theory of Mind (ToM) is the cognitive capacity of an individual to ascribe mental states (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, motivations, and emotions) to oneself as well as other individuals. Another important aspect of ToM is the ability to recognize that mental states can vary across individuals. In conjunction, these aspects of ToM are the building blocks of human interaction, enabling an individual to recognize, comprehend, and predict the thought processes and actions of others. This brief article defines ToM, reviews its developmental origins, highlights some consequences of ToM deficits, and considers the role of ToM in criminal behavior.

ToM requires the development of a diverse collection of skills across infancy and into early childhood. These necessary skills include attentional capacity, the ability to mimic others, performing role plays, recognition of emotions in others, and the comprehension of causes and consequences of actions. Without these skills and the subsequent development of ToM, a child will often struggle in the realms of cognitive and social development. In terms of cognitive development, the child may struggle with academic performance, making decisions, and solving problems. Alternatively, a range of social skills such as language development, making friends, communicating, understanding the mental states of others, and distinguishing between the truth and lies could suffer. Nonetheless, the inter-related nature of these developmental skills and ToM may mean that improvements in some of the skills could result in improved ToM.

Although the vast majority of research on ToM has focused on children, a growing body of literature suggests that ToM deficits can persist across childhood into adolescence and adulthood. In fact, there is the potential for the emergence of issues in two key areas. First, ToM deficits frequently co-occur with mental health issues including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, psychosis, and substance abuse. In some of these instances, the ToM deficits may directly or indirectly contribute to the development of a later mental health issue. Second, initial research suggests that ToM impairments may have a deleterious influence on involvement in the criminal justice system. For instance, ToM-related impairments in the area of comprehending the relationship between causes and consequences could directly result in behavior that results in arrest. Unfortunately, the individual may not recognize the serious consequences of their actions in such situations.

As highlighted in this brief article, ToM is a skill integral to functioning in diverse settings across the lifespan. In light of the potential contributory nature of ToM to mental health issues and possible criminal behavior, there is a strong need for awareness of this issue among mental health, criminal justice, and legal professionals. This underpublicized issue likely warrants the development of advanced education and training programs to better facilitate the recognition and treatment of ToM in these settings.

In conclusion, here are ten key points to consider on ToM, mental health, and criminal behavior:

  1. Theory of Mind (ToM) is the ability to recognize mental states (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, motivations, and emotions) in oneself and others while recognizing that these mental states can vary across people.
  2. ToM serves as the basis of human interaction by enabling an individual to recognize, comprehend, and predict the thought processes and actions of others.
  3. ToM is a function of diverse skills (e.g., attentional capacity and recognition of emotions in others) that begin development during infancy and continue into childhood.
  4. ToM deficits contribute to struggles in cognitive (e.g., academic performance) and social (e.g., communication) development.
  5. Improvements in the developmental skills that form the basis of ToM have the potential to address ToM impairments.
  6. ToM deficits often co-occur with mental health issues (e.g., ADHD, autism, and psychosis).
  7. ToM deficits may be a factor to consider in some cases of criminal justice-involvement.
  8. There remains a strong need for research on ToM in adolescents, adults, and the elderly in general and its role in the development of mental health and criminal justice issues.
  9. Greater awareness of ToM among mental health, criminal justice, and legal professionals is very necessary.
  10. The development of advanced education and training programs has the potential to better facilitate the recognition and treatment of ToM.

Author’s Biography:

Jerrod Brown, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor and Program Director for the Master of Arts degree in Human Services with an emphasis in Forensic Behavioral Health for Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota. Jerrod has also been employed with Pathways Counseling Center in St. Paul, Minnesota for the past fifteen years. Pathways provides programs and services benefiting individuals impacted by mental illness and addictions. Jerrod is also the founder and CEO of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies (AIAFS), and the Editor-in-Chief of Forensic Scholars Today (FST) and the Journal of Special Populations (JSP). Jerrod has completed four separate master’s degree programs and holds graduate certificates in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Other Health Disabilities (OHD), and Traumatic-Brain Injuries (TBI). For a complete list of references used for this article, please email Jerrod at Jerrod01234Brown@live.com


Also published on Medium.