The Relationship Between Theory of Mind, Social Information Processing, and Aggression in Preschool Children

Kimberly Wright Cassidy, Psychology, Bryn Mawr College

Research Grant, 1997

Much recent research suggests that preschoolers undergo a fundamental change in their ability to understand the internal states (desires, beliefs, emotions) of others (termed theory of mind). Little research has been done to determine the extent to which theory of mind development relates to social adaptation. A second line of research indicates that other social cognitive variables, namely social information processing, are consistently related to maladaptive behavior in middle childhood. This study investigated the links between social cognitive variables and social adaptation in preschool children by investigating the relationship between theory of mind development, social information processing, and social behavior (both prosocial and aggressive behavior). More broadly, this research provided a descriptive study of aggressive behavior in preschoolers as rated by teachers and research observers.

Seventy preschool children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds performed a battery of theory of mind measures (measuring understanding of others’ beliefs and understanding of others’ emotions), a measure of social information processing (measuring children’s ability to complete the stages of Dodge’s social information processing model: assessing intentions, generating strategies, evaluating potential strategies and choosing a competent strategy), and several measures of social behavior (with a particular emphasis on physical and relational aggression).

Children with better understanding of others' thoughts and feelings were also more likely to be popular with their peers and to be the recipient of prosocial acts by their peers.

Overall, preschoolers seemed to have an aggressive “style.” That is, some engaged in no aggression, some engaged in physical aggression only, some engaged in relational aggression only and some engaged in both types of aggression. These percentages were different for boys and girls, with boys being more likely to engage in primarily physical or both kinds of aggression and girls being more likely to engage in relational aggression. Boys who aggressed were seen as possessing fewer social skills, but were also not seen as having more problem behaviors in general (beyond aggression). Girls who aggressed were not rated as deficient in positive social skills, but were rated as engaging in higher levels of other types of problem behaviors. Interestingly, higher levels of aggression were not related to popularity among peers (as rated by peers).

In addition, results showed that for boys with less developed language skills, there was a strong negative relationship between social cognitive understanding and physical aggression. That is, boys with below-average language skills relative to their peers who were better able to predict the thoughts of others and who were better able to social problem solve were less likely to engage in physical aggression such as hitting and pushing. Girls’ social-cognitive skills were not related to their level of physical aggression. Children with better understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings were also more likely to be popular with their peers and to be the recipient of prosocial acts by their peers.

  1. Cassidy, K. W., Werner, R. S., Rourke, M., Zubernis, L. S. & Balaraman, G. (2003). "The relationship between psychological understanding and positive social behavior." Social Development 12: 198-221.

  2. Werner, R. S. & Cassidy, K. W. (under review). "The role of social-cognitive abilities in pre-schoolers' aggressive behavior." British Journal of Developmental Psychology.

  3. Werner, R. S. & Cassidy, K. W. (under review) "The early correlates of preschool aggressive behavior according to type of aggression and measurement." Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.

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