Reading another person is a skill typically learned at a young age, and new findings suggest a child’s popularity hinges on their proficiency in identifying their peers’ emotions and thoughts. Australian researchers from the University of Queensland studied why certain preschool and school-aged children become popular amongst their peers.

"Our study suggests that understanding others' mental perspectives may facilitate the kind of interactions that help children become or remain popular," the study’s lead author Virginia Slaughter, professor of psychology and head of the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland, said in a press release. "Training children to be sensitive to others' thoughts and feelings may improve their relationships with peers. This may be particularly important for children who are struggling with friendship issues, such as children who are socially isolated."

The international study, which was published in the journal Child Development, reveals the children skilled at identifying how others want, think, and feel, climb the social ladder with greater ease than others. The research team combed through 20 different studies that addressed the relationship between theory of mind and popularity among peers. They analyzed 2,096 children between the ages of 2 to 10 years old from Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America, and began to see a pattern in popular children’s ability to figure out what the others thought and felt.

Researchers found the more fluent a child was in sarcasm and their understanding of friendship betrayal, the greater their handle on Theory of Mind. This unique branch of cognitive science explores how individuals perceive other persons mental states, according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Being able to identify and communicate a full range of another peer’s mental states, such as beliefs, desires, intentions, imaginations, and emotions, improved that child’s likeableness.

Children from preschool age up throughout their adolescent years used the same type of approach to popularizing another student. The findings also indicated the link between Theory of Mind skills and popularity was stronger for girls than boys. Researchers believe a girl’s adeptness of reading of person is characteristic of the types of bonds girls form because their friendships are heavily intertwined in conversational intimacy and resolving conflicts.

The Theory of Mind is in the same family of research denoted by “mentalistic abilities,” according to IEP. The natural development of mind reading digs its roots into the ability to read and assess another person’s wants, needs, and ultimately the course of action they’ll take. The polarized opposite would be, what researchers call, “mindblindness” When a person cannot empathetically understand another’s emotions or make a proper assessment of their state of mind, it’s oftentimes they have a socialization issue characteristic of behavioral and communication conditions, such as autism spectrum disorders.

Source: Slaughter V, Imuta K Peterson CC, and Henry JC. Meta-Analysis of Theory of Mind and Peer Popularity in the Preschool and Early School Years. Child Development. 2015.