Is Inhibition Necessary for Successful Theory of Mind Performance?

Document Type


Degree Name

Specialist in School Psychology (SSP)


Psychology and Special Education

Date of Award

Summer 2022


Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to reason about another person’s thoughts or motivations. Theories differ regarding the role of executive functions in ToM performance (Happé, 1994). Modular theory suggests that ToM is a separate ability that does not rely on basic cognitive resources (McGlamery et al., 2007). By contrast, Theory Theory and Simulation theory argue that inhibitory abilities are necessary for ToM performance (Carlson et al., 2002; McGlamery et al., 2007; Wynn & Coolidge, 2009). In this study, we used a secondary task to induce cognitive load–effectively lowering the available executive resources, making inhibition harder. This was done while participants performed a task requiring ToM on some trials, and only working memory on others. Contrary to Theory Theory and Simulation Theory, participant response times were affected similarly by a secondary task, regardless of whether the current trial involved ToM. Even more surprisingly, accuracy was impacted in opposite directions for ToM and working memory trials–with working memory trials trending towards the classic impaired performance under cognitive load, and ToM trials trending towards superior performance under cognitive load.


David J. Frank

Subject Categories

Psychology | Social and Behavioral Sciences