Thinking about thinking
: Investigating the co-development of metacognition, self-control and ToM

  • Mariel Symeonidou

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Metacognition, the ability to reflect on and control our own thoughts, is traditionally considered to onset in middle childhood. However, in the last decade, the general consensus regarding the development of metacognition has changed. Researchers have argued that children as young as 3 or 4 have metacognitive abilities. This situates the development of metacognition in the same period as the development of self-control and theory of mind (ToM). The developmental relationship between self-control and ToM is well established (Hughes & Ensor, 2007). However, there has been no attempt to investigate the relationship between metacognition, self-control and ToM at the time of onset. The aim of the current thesis was to understand the developmental sequence of these skills, and to assess potentially predictive relationships between them. Simulation theory (Harris, 1992; Flavell, 1999) proposes that children may need to represent their own mental states and use these to simulate the mental states of other people. If this is the case, we might expect the ability to represent one’s own mental states to be a developmental pre-requisite for ToM. Further, since children may ultimately need to inhibit their own conflicting perspective to represent other’s mental state, metacognition may interact with self-control to predict the development of ToM.

To assess these hypotheses, seventy-one Scottish children participated in a longitudinal study, testing their metacognition, self-control and ToM at 6 monthly intervals between the ages of 3 and 5 years (building to 213 sampling points). Metacognitive skills, as assessed by certainty monitoring and introspection were the first to develop, followed closely by self-control. As predicted, these skills interacted to predict ToM, the latest developing skill. Specifically, self-control was found to mediate the relationship between metacognition and ToM, both sequentially and statistically. These results support the suggestion that children may need to understand and control their own mental states before understanding the mental states of others. An additional cross-sectional study comparing 3 to 6-year olds in Scotland (N = 56) and Japan (N = 56) suggested that children might follow a universal sequence of development, with ToM developing last. Across both studies, and two countries, the current thesis therefore provides strong evidence in support of simulation theory.
Date of Award2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorJosephine Ross (Supervisor) & Alissa Melinger (Supervisor)


  • Metacognition
  • Theory of Mind
  • Self-control
  • Scotland
  • Japan

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