• Social Understanding

Judy Dunn

Jeremy Carpendale


Social Understanding is how we view the world, ourselves and others as persons with dreams, feelings, wants and meaning. Social Understanding emerged from Social Psychology in the 1950s with the focus being the “everyday thinking that makes social interaction possible”. (Carpendale & Lewis, 2010, p. 585) Around the 1970s research most commonly referred to it as “theory of mind.” With this new view of Social Understanding, research expanded rapidly in the 1980s. Judy Dunn, Jeremy Carpendale and Charlie Lewis are all pioneers in the field of Social Understanding.

What Develops?

  • The literature on the development of social understanding places an emphasis on how the individual develops within their cultural context. This approach is very different than that adopted by the Theory of Mind tradition, which focuses on the development of the individual brain‍‍‍.‍‍‍

Mechanisms of Development
  • Children develop social understanding through the process of observation, introspection, and imagination.
  • The child is viewed as an active agent in the developmental process. ‍‍‍As the child develops, they gain knowledge of how other people behave and how they influence the behavior of others. This helps with constructing an understanding of the world in which they live and their role within it.‍‍‍
  • This approach ‍‍‍focuses on the human's interaction with their surroundings, where the assumption is that humans form social understanding that is culture-specific (Carpendale & Lewis, 2004).
  • The focus of development in infancy is placed on the dyad between the infant and their caregiver. As the infant develops, more emphasis is placed on triadic interaction, which is interaction between the infant, their caregiver, and the world around ‍‍them (‍‍culture).‍‍‍‍
  • Early in human development the infant has not established an understanding of others' perspectives. This continues through early development, and children assume that the way they learn is the same as how everyone else learns (Carpendale & Lewis, 2004).
  • An example of this can be seen in this video regarding ‍‍‍false beliefs:‍‍‍

  • As the child gets older and further develops, they are able to adopt a more active role in their interaction with others. They begin to understand that not only do people respond to their behaviors, but they can actively direct the attention of their caregivers.
  • Research on social understanding has been greatly influenced but attachment and psychodynamic theories.
  • The security of attachment and social cognitive development found to be positively associated because parents who develop secure attachments respond sensitively and appropriately (Carpendale & Lewis, 2004).

Development Outcomes Across the Lifespan/ Implications

  • Infancy: In the first months of life, infants’ experience/interactions with others are dyadic, between them and another person (caregiver, sibling, etc.) Toward the end of infants' first year, infants’ interactions become triadic, between them, another person, and objects (or their environment). This is a gradual transition with infants vaguely distinguishing themselves from caregivers and objects. "Examples of behavior involving triadic interaction...include social referencing, gaze following and different forms of pointing." (Carpendale & Lewis, 2004, p. 85 ) Also, infants usually around the age of 9 months, will use parents' facial expressions as reference about uncertain situations.
  • Around 12-18 months, infants begin involving in joint attention which is the foundation for communication later.‍‍‍ Paradigmatic joint attention behaviors‍‍‍ are when infants use pointing gestures and respond to others' pointing gestures.(Carpendale & Lewis, 2010) Newly discovered is a third pointing gesture to inform. "Moore and D’Entremont (2001) found that infants at age 1 year are more likely to point when their parent is looking at them, whereas at age 2 years they tend to point when their parent had not seen an interesting sight. This suggests that young infants point to enhance interaction, but older infants understand pointing as directing others’ attention." (Carpendale &Lewis, 2004, p.84) At this stage, Carpendale and Lewis (2004) further explain, when they have learned to sync attention with others (p. 87) "they can refer to aspects of the world by directing other's attention, and they can understand people's referential intent."
  • At 18-36 months, children begin using language to communicate what they wanted. For 18-24, children used words to request things. Whereas, children 24-36 months used words to request permission, since they are more capable of doing things. (Carpendale & Lewis, 2010)
  • 36 months fail False Belief Test (see below for more information), which means children are unable to recognize that others have different perspectives and at times their perspectives can be outdated or false.
  • 4 years of age are able to pass False ‍‍Belief Test, again, which means around this time children are beginning to realize others can have different beliefs or varying points of views than theirs.

‍‍‍Social Understanding & Diversity‍‍‍

  • ‍‍‍Social understanding researchers place an emphasis on enculturation. Social interaction is viewed as an integral part in the child's development of knowledge and understanding (Carpendale & Lewis, ‍‍2004).‍‍‍‍‍
  • As previously noted, the focus of this perspective is on the child's development within the context of their culture. Therefore, it is not appropriate to detail the development of a child without emphasizing their cultural setting and the role this has played (‍‍Banerjee, 2004).‍‍
  • As the child grows, they develop a social understanding of ‍‍‍‍‍‍culture-specific norms.‍‍‍ ‍‍‍An example of a child developing an understanding of social norms is a child learning gender-specific norms (Lindsey, 1990). They receive messages about appropriate displays of gender and sexuality from parents, peers, schools, social media, etc. (Lindsey, 1990; Donaldson, 1993; Mahalik & Cournoyer, 2000).
  • It is important to highlight the importance of social relationships and the importance they play in human development beyond childhood (Banerjee, 2004).
  • Several empirical studies highlight the importance of social interaction in the development of social understanding:

  • McElwain & Volling (2002)
    • Child-friend interactions differed greatly depending upon social understanding
    • These authors also highlight the role that sociometric status plays in social interaction as well, noting previous research by Putallaz and Sheppard (1990) who found that children with low sociometric status tended to compete in a negative manner for resources than did those children with high sociometric status.
    • High false belief understanding was correlated with high coordinated play and low conflict.
      • Low levels of controlling behaviors and more equitable interaction observed.
    • Low level of false belief understanding -- conflict was still low.
      • Child being studied dominated the friend and the friend submitted to the demands of the child being studied.
    • The researchers found that when only the study child had a high false belief understanding, the play within the dyad was coordinated and there was low conflict between the two.
    • When only the friend in the dyad had a high false belief understanding, their was less coordinated play between the two and there were high levels of conflict.
    • The authors suggest this is largely due to the roles adopted by the children. In the experiment, the study child was the one who invited the other to play.
    • Authors suggested that children who had a high false belief understanding had a better understanding of the importance of suggestion and the risks of assuming direct control in the dyad.
    • Also, they posit that the fact that when both children had high emotional understanding and conflict was low suggests that these children noted that the sharing task had the potential to lead to negative emotions and they were also able to recognize their partner's display of emotions (frustration, sadness, etc.).
    • This also suggests that these children were aware of their partner's emotions as well as their own.
    • Gender differences observed:
      • Boy-boy dyads -- more intense conflict in sharing task compared ‍‍to girl-girl ‍‍dyads
      • ‍‍‍Girl-girl dyads had more conflict in free play sessions than boy-boy dyads‍‍‍

This particular study is enlightening, because it highlights the importance of social understanding in social settings for children. The results suggest that a complex social understanding mediates the social interaction between children. Furthermore, it suggests that social understanding contributes to an understanding of one's emotions and the emotions of the other.
  • Maguire & Dunn (1997)
    • Results suggested there are two independent aspects of early friendships -- positive interaction and coordinated play.
    • The authors suggest that individual differences in the quality of friendships ought to be attended to, because they can vary widely.
    • They also highlight the importance of the context in which children are studied, noting this will greatly impact the data gained from such a study.
    • Girls were found to engage in more elaborate play than boys.
    • Girls also found to assume more power/control, suggesting they had not yet “fallen into ‘gender-appropriate’ behavior in this respect” (p.682).
    • As children grow older, "they learn that girls are to be 'nice girls' who are quiet and controlled" (p.682).
    • Pretend play early in the child's development was found to be a significant predictor of more sophisticated functioning, better recognition of other people's emotions, and understanding of others.
    • “Over this developmental period, when striking advances in understanding the social world take place, it appears that the experience of sharing a pretend world, or establishing connected, co-ordinated play with another child (sibling or friend) are ‍‍‍linked to developments in social understanding.” (p‍‍.683)‍‍‍‍‍

This study is of particular importance due to it's attention to gender differences. These authors suggest that these participants were too young to have been fully impacted by social norms regarding appropriate gender behavior.

  • Astington (2004) took issue with Carpendale and Lewis' (2004) use of the terms social interaction, communication, and language interchangeably.
    • These authors suggest that language and social interaction/communication may play separate roles in theory of mind development.
    • These authors highlight that dead children with deaf parents develop false belief understanding within the typical time frame.
    • However, deaf children with hearing parents do not develop at the same rate, which suggests that language ability plays a role in the development of theory of mind independent of that played by social communication

This study is of great interest, because it highlights the importance of language in the development of social understanding. As highlighted previously, language plays an important role in the development of social understanding, because it conveys culture-specific messages to the person.

  • McAlpine and Moore (1995) detail the development of social understanding among visually impaired children.
    • The authors found children with visual impairments were often delayed in achieving an understanding of false belief, and the amount of visual impairment impacted how successful children were on false belief tasks
    • There were two children who were older and totally blind and completed the false beliefs tasks, which supports earlier findings that suggest false beliefs is in place by at least age eleven.
    • Other cross-sectional and longitudinal data suggests that children with visual impairments are delayed in their understanding of false beliefs, but they are not deficient in this understanding
    • The authors state that the inability to detect facial characteristics may be one factor that contributes to the delay in acquiring an understanding of false beliefs.
    • They also state that language plays a major role as well, noting that language patterns for the visually impaired are qualitatively different from those who are not visually impaired.
    • ‍‍These authors highlight previous research by Anderson et al (1984) which suggests that "children with a visual impairment do not use idiosyncratic forms, use action words that are restricted only to actions they perform, and have less of an understanding of words as symbolic vehicles. Thus, the delay that severely visually impaired children experience may be the result of immature language concepts, as well as of limited or no visual information." (p.355)‍‍

This study highlights the importance of nonverbal behavior in the process of communication. They highlight the differences in communication styles among different cultural groups, and attends to the complexities of communication. Communication is not merely verbal, but also entails facial expressions, tone, inflection, body language, etc.

Common Methodologies

  • ‍‍The False Belief Test was developed by Heinz Wimmer and Josef Prener in the early 1980’s. The test measures the child’s understanding of others perspectives and their understanding that others’ beliefs can be false or outdated. The test has consistently shown in replication studies that average children age 3 or under generally fail the test. However, once they reach the age of 4 they are able to pass the test. (Carpendale & Lewis, 2010)
  • Judy Dunn and associates have popularized observational studies in the field with her work in homes and schools. Numerous studies have been done conducting how being a sibling and/or a part of a large family network (having regular social interaction with grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc) effects children’s development. More so, Dunn has gone into schools to observe children’s understanding of friendships through play and how they affect children’s development.
  • ‍‍

‍‍‍Current Knowledge in Methodology‍‍‍

  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners are used to try to locate social understanding within the brain (Carpendale & Lewis, 2010)
  • New studies are emerging studying the lack of social understanding in persons with autism.
    • Studies such as Strange Stories tests, which assess the ability of children and adolescents with Asperger Syndrome of normal intelligence to infer mental states in a story (Kaland et al., 2004)
  • Emerging studies on the lack of social understanding in persons with ODD or OCD are showing people with these mental illnesses may lack social understanding, especially persons’ with OCD (Emond et al., 2007)

Current Issues

  • Current research in this area has been employed in the field of artificial intelligence and robotics. Dautenhaun (1997) has highlighted the difficulty in programming robots to recognize or display empathy.
  • This area of research has been applied to family dynamics as well. Dunn and Munn (1985) analyzed social understanding in the context of the family environment. These authors studied children between the ages of 18 and 24 months and found that 1/3 of the children attempted to carry out supportive actions when witnessing a conflict between a parent and sibling.
  • They also found that children appeared to have an understanding of family-endorsed behaviors as well as those that were ‍‍prohibited.‍‍
  • ‍‍‍The following clip is a humorous example of a child recognizing prohibited behaviors and adapting their response to a parent when being questioned:‍‍‍


  • ‍‍Social understanding is found in every culture and is relatable to everyone within a culture because we are all social beings with feelings, emotions, desires and wants. The lack or presence of social understanding effects peoples social functioning even in the minutest way
  • Many studies found were conducted in the United Kingdom.
  • The field is lacking research on social understanding in adults. Most research is conducted on children under the age of 7. Studies are slowly coming out on social understanding in adolescents.
  • Social understanding lacks research in areas related to socio-economic statuses, people with long term addictions, and people with mental illness. ‍‍‍

Additional Resources

These particular resources are extremely helpful in providing a clear, concise overview of social understanding.

Carpendale, J.I.M. & Lewis, C. (2006). How children develop social understanding. Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA.

Hughes, C. (2011). Social understanding and social lives: From toddlerhood through to the transition to school. Psychology Press: New York,


‍‍‍Carpendale, J.I.M. & Lewis, C. (2004). Constructing an understanding of the min: The development of children’s social understanding within
social interaction. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27, 79-151.

Dautenhaun, K. (1997). I could be you: The phenomenological dimension of social understanding. Cybernetics and Systems: An International
Journal, 28, 417-453.

Dunn, J. & Munn, P. (1985). Becoming a family member: Family conflict and the development of social understanding in the second year.
Child Developmemt, 56, 480-492.

Maguire, M.C. & Dunn, J. (1997). Friendships in early childhood, and social understanding. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 21, 669-686.

McElwain, N.L. & Volling, B.L. (2002). Relating individual control, social understanding, and gender to child-friend interaction: A relationships
perspective. Social Development, 11, 362-385.

McAlpine, L.M. & Moore, C.L. (1995). The development of social understanding in children with visual impairments. Journal of Visual
Impairment & Blindness, 89, 349-358.‍‍‍

Emond, A., et al. (2007) Preschool Behavioral and Social Cognitive Problems as Predictors of (Pre)adolescent Disruptive Behavior. Child Psychiatry Human Development, 38, 221-236.

Kaland, N., et al. (2005) The Strange Stories test: A replication study of children and adolescents with Asperger Syndrome. European Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 14, 73-82.