Theory of Mind Development in Adolescence and Early Adulthood: The Growing Complexity of Recursive Thinking Ability

Annalisa Valle, Davide Massaro, Ilaria Castelli, Antonella Marchetti


This study explores the development of theory of mind, operationalized as recursive thinking ability, from adolescence to early adulthood (N = 110; young adolescents = 47; adolescents = 43; young adults = 20). The construct of theory of mind has been operationalized in two different ways: as the ability to recognize the correct mental state of a character, and as the ability to attribute the correct mental state in order to predict the character’s behaviour. The Imposing Memory Task, with five recursive thinking levels, and a third-order false-belief task with three recursive thinking levels (devised for this study) have been used. The relationship among working memory, executive functions, and linguistic skills are also analysed. Results show that subjects exhibit less understanding of elevated recursive thinking levels (third, fourth, and fifth) compared to the first and second levels. Working memory is correlated with total recursive thinking, whereas performance on the linguistic comprehension task is related to third level recursive thinking in both theory of mind tasks. An effect of age on third-order false-belief task performance was also found. A key finding of the present study is that the third-order false-belief task shows significant age differences in the application of recursive thinking that involves the prediction of others’ behaviour. In contrast, such an age effect is not observed in the Imposing Memory Task. These results may support the extension of the investigation of the third order false belief after childhood.


recursive thinking; theory of mind; adolescence; adulthood; third-order false-belief task

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