The following paragraphs are from a pretty good Wikipedia article on theory of mind.
Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own.
Individuals who experience a theory of mind deficit have difficulty determining the intentions of others, lack understanding of how their behavior affects others, and have a difficult time with social reciprocity.
As far as I understand the term, theory of mind is generally used to assess autism spectrum disorders and behavioral problems that result from brain injuries, drug abuse, and alcoholism. I have no problem with that.
Here’s an interesting response to the theory from someone with Asperger’s Syndrome: Empathy, Mindblindness, and Theory of Mind. The author of this piece, Lynne Soraya, mainly objects to the characterization that she does not have empathy for others. She wonders if the problem is one not of a lack of empathy but of understanding.
I agree with her in more ways than one. Misapplied, theory of mind can become a high-sounding defense of conformity and the status quo. Beyond basic levels of reasonable manners and appropriateness, theory of mind can lead us to draw many false conclusions about the people we are with. If FIML has taught me one thing with great certainty it is that, while I may have some sense of what my partner is thinking or feeling, I am very often wrong in important ways and almost always sort of wrong in many subtle ways.
Look into your own mind. What do you see? Is there some solid state there? Are all of your intentions clear even to you? Why do you say what you say? What else are you thinking right now? As soon as you answer any one of these questions, the multifaceted dynamism of your mind will change again. Can you remember what was in your mind–remember with good, clear accuracy–one minute ago? I bet you can’t. How about two minutes ago? If even you cannot know what was in your own mind one minute ago and restate it clearly, how can you expect another person to really ever know what is in your mind unless you tell them while you are still able to remember yourself?
This is where real speech lives. In the moment. Speech often comes forth from us for mysterious reasons. And our partners hear our speech in their own mysterious ways. We can know these ways, but only by talking about them, only by asking. Theory of mind can help us form some general ideas, but only FIML can give us access to what our partners are truly thinking when they speak to us or listen to us.
If I say let’s go for a walk, I probably will be able to tell from your expression whether you want to go or not, and maybe even how much you want to go. But if as we leave the building you glance at a bush beside the walk, do I know why you looked there or what you are thinking? Very unlikely.
Similarly, if you speak a sentence to me, do I know the fullness of the state of your mind from which that sentence issued? No, I don’t. Hardly ever. If the sentence is at all ambiguous or even slightly emotionally charged, I may not have the slightest clue why you said it. I can guess, but the only way I can know for sure is to ask you.
Theory of mind is OK for making crude determinations about some people in some situations, but worthless for most speech or communicative acts between equal partners.
We do not know what is in other people’s minds. We are not mind readers. We can only know with certainty what they are thinking and feeling if they tell us. And that can be difficult even for them to do because even they may not know what is in their minds or why.
This is why I say that theory of mind can be sorely misapplied to become a defense of status quo conformity, status quo semiotics.
Humans are primitive beasts with poorly functioning speech capacities. If they are not attributing status quo interpretations of others to them, they will be making up their own and those will probably be neurotic (mistaken, as we have been defining that term).
Our options as people who speak and interact are not either we are autistic or we are “normal” (have good theory of mind). There is a huge other area of human speech and interaction (and this area includes both autistic and “normal” people)–no matter what you do or say, you cannot speak to another person without employing unfounded assumptions about them unless you ask and they answer honestly.
For most exchanges with strangers and acquaintances, we don’t need to know what they are thinking and feeling. We just follow the basic rules–professional or otherwise–that govern the exchange. For intimate partners and friends, however, those rules will not work. If you want real communication with your partner, you will have to do FIML or something like it. I can’t think of any other way to know their feelings and intentions.