The Smarties Tube Test of Theory of Mind

Just the other day, I did the Smarties Tube Test for the first time in ages. Understandably, the parent of my client was somewhat surprised when I duped her child with my Smarties tube full of buttons! As I was explaining the reason for the test afterwards (best to do it afterwards to avoid any bias), I thought it would make for an interesting web post about theory of mind. Before I go on, please don’t worry, the client in question got a tube of real Smarties afterwards!

What is The Smarties Tube Test?

The Smarties Tube Test is a really simple but effective way to test Theory of Mind. Please understand that it is not a ‘quick and easy test for autism’ although it is helpful in combination with A LOT of other information in the process of diagnosing autism and other developmental conditions. First I’ll explain what Theory of Mind is then I’ll tell you how you do the test and what it tells you.

What is Theory of Mind?

Theory of mind is basically ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’. It’s the skill we human beings use to ‘mind read’ other people so that we can figure out how others are feeling, what their intentions are, what they believe and what they are likely to know or not know. Theory of mind is what tells you how much background information to give another person when you are telling them about something that has happened to you. It is what makes us wince when someone we care about hurts him/herself. It is what helps us figure out when someone else is being sarcastic and it is what helps us to deceive others. Typically, theory of mind starts to develop about 3 and a half to 4 years old.

Who has trouble with Theory of Mind?

As theory of mind usually develops around 4 years old, you can expect that any child younger than 4 will not do well at mind reading! In addition, theory of mind is typically a core area of weakness for people who have a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum, so much so that it is widely regarded as an essential characteristic of autism.

How do you do the Smarties Tube Test?

First and out of sight of the child, put some buttons (or some pencils) into an empty Smarties tube. When you see the child, show him/her the Smarties tube (you can shake it!) and ask ‘what do you think is in here?’. The child will most likely say ‘Smarties’. Next, you open the tube, show the child what is inside and ask him/her ‘On no! What is inside?’. Hopefully he/she won’t cry and will say ‘Buttons’. You put the buttons back into the tube and ask the child ‘Can you remember what is inside?’, most likely they will say ‘Buttons’. Now for the clever bit. Tell the child you’re going to play a trick on someone who isn’t with you, it could be a brother, sister, mum, dad, teacher, whoever. Ask ‘If we give this to your brother (or whoever!) later, what will he think is inside?’ If the child has theory of mind and understands that his/her brother won’t know the tube is full of buttons, he/she will say ‘Heh heh! Smarties’. If the child does not have theory of mind, he/she will not be able to put aside his/her knowledge that the tube has buttons in it and will say that the brother thinks there are buttons inside.

I hope that all makes sense but, by way of further explanation, this video gives a nice summary of theory of mind and how you do the Smarties Tube Test. It also explains the more widely known ‘Sally Ann Test’:

Theory of Mind Testing

I find that the Smarties Tube Test is a quick, unambiguous and easy way to establish whether a child has developed theory of mind or not.