Mind the gap sign on tube platform with train rushing past

Mind the gap

Humans have an uncanny ability to put themselves in the position of others

Young children can be horribly selfish. They want things for themselves and are not interested in sharing. Partly this is because they lack the ability to appreciate what other individuals are thinking and feeling. This develops gradually during childhood.

Being able to understand the feelings and motivations of others, being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes, is known as theory of mind. It is the basis of what we know as empathy – appreciating what others are feeling and how our own behaviour may impact on them.

It is likely that people’s capacity for empathy varies. We can probably identify people whom we feel are particularly empathic (or those who seem to lack empathy).

In some conditions theory of mind seems to be very badly affected. A common feature of autism, for example, is an inability to appreciate what others are thinking and feeling, or to appreciate the impact of one’s actions on others. As a result, people with autism generally lack social skills, and have to be taught how to behave in social situations where most of us would behave naturally, relying on unconscious social skills.

Lead image:

Leo Marco/Flickr   CC BY NC ND

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Neuroscience, Physiology
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development