Theory of Mind and Character Interaction (When You Reach Me)

Note: Thanks to Iapetus for inspiring this post with his comment on The Fundamental Attribution Error and Character Sympathy

The False Belief Task is often used by psychologists to test social cognition. One version goes something like this.

1. Sally has a favorite marble. She puts her marble in a basket, and then leaves the room.
2. Anne, being very mean, enters the room when Sally is not there and and moves the marble to the cupboard.
3. When Sally comes back into the room, where does she look for her marble?

If you answered, the basket, then congratulations, you have well developed theory of mind abilities. Of course, Sally doesn't find the marble there. She has a false belief about the location of the marble.

The tasks seems trivially easy for adults, but kids below the age of five consistently say that Sally will look for the marble in the cupboard, where Anne put it. It seems that the ability to represent someone else beliefs as something different from what you know about the world develops later on in childhood.

But even though adults can do the Sally-Anne task, we sometimes still fall prey to the mistaken notion that other people think the same way we do. Lets take an example from When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead.

Sixth grader Miranda doesn't like Julia because she's annoying. When making self portraits in art class, Julia asks for "cafe au lait" construction paper to match her skin. She also brags about the fancy vacations she takes with her parents and shows off all the souvenirs her parents buy her. Miranda can't understand why her friend Annemarie used to be best friends with Julia.

One day, Julia shows up at the restaurant where Miranda and Annemarie work. Miranda first worries that the restaurant owner will invite Julia to work with them. But to her surprise, Jimmy (the restaurant owner) immediately kicks Julia out of the restaurant and tells her never to come back. Miranda is delighted.

"Out," Jimmy said, practically growling. "Now."
After she left, I pretended along with Annemarie that Jimmy was a little bit crazy, but as we walked back to school with our cheese-and-lettuce sandwiches, I carried a new warm feeling inside. Jimmy could be a grouch, but he saw right through Julia, just like I did.

See how Miranda automatically assumed that Jimmy disliked Julia for the same reasons she did? It's only later that she realizes Jimmy had completely different reasons. Julia was black, and Jimmy didn't want her around because he believed black people were genetically wired to be dishonest. It was a nice twist and an important moment of growth for Miranda.

Have you ever read or written anything that used false belief to good dramatic effect?


  1. I liked that scene too, when Miranda realizes that not everyone thinks the same way that she does. I also liked that eventually she is able to put the "cafe au lait" thing that annoys her so much into perspective so it actually becomes something she LIKES about Julia.

    This idea of "false belief" also seems to tie into the whole "limited narrator" idea where the narrator can only tell you what she knows or how she interprets things and it's up to you to figure out what's "really" going on.

  2. Portraying characters who misjudge motives can be a classic technique in mysteries.

  3. I feel like Orson Scott Card is good at using this technique, but I can't think of any specific examples right now.

  4. What a great scene & lesson! I can't think of anything off hand, but you can be sure I'll be looking for them from now on!

  5. Brilliant post, Livia, thanks :) I can't think of any examples off the top of my head, but I'll be pondering this all day.

  6. A while back I ran into a blog post in which the writer claimed that many arguments can be boiled down to "astonished cries of, 'But you're not me!'" I loved that--it's not uncommon to encounter adults whose only frame of reference is their own experience, and who therefore assume any reaction that is not like the one they think they'd have under those circumstances must be "wrong." It's a little disorienting.

    From a writing point of view, I'm trying to use this with the main character of a mystery I'm working on. My character's impulses are generally charitable, and he attributes them to other people as well, which is not terribly helpful when you're trying to catch a murderer. He's gradually becoming a more suspicious person and he doesn't like it at all.

  7. You have seen Three's Company, right?
    The entire premise of every single episode is misunderstanding. Everyone would assume they knew what was going on when the truth lay elsewhere.
    In my latest WIP my character's entire world view is based on lies and coverups.

    The truth will set you free!

    Thanks for the follow-up! :)

  8. This reminds me of something that happened when my daughter was little. She was talking on the phone with my mother, and spinning in circles. When she stopped, she asked, "Are you dizzy, Grammy?"

    I love this, and for some reason it has always stuck with me.

    It's my first time here - fascinating blog!

  9. Excellent post!

    I agree with Amitha. By using a limited point of view character, you can actually form false beliefs in readers as well. That way, the moment of realization becomes even more profound. My most recent novel, Angel of Death, uses this technique extensively.

    Writing requires a developed theory of mind. It's the only way to control what the reader knows and how the story unfolds.

  10. I'm still working on how Miranda the sixth-grader got a job at a restaurant.

  11. Anonymous 12/29/2009 9:15AM -- You'll have to read the book to find that out :-)