Published in the journal Child Development, the study found pre-schoolers and primary school children who are good at identifying and responding to what others want, think and feel are rated by their peers or teachers as being popular at school.
Head of the School of Psychology Professor Virginia Slaughter said understanding the mental perspectives of others could facilitate the type of interactions that help children become or remain popular.
“Our findings suggest that training children to be sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others may improve their relationships with peers,” Professor Slaughter said.
“This could be particularly important for children who are struggling with friendship issues, such as children who are socially isolated.”
Professor Slaughter led the meta-analysis, which examined 20 studies addressing the relation between theory of mind and popularity to determine if there was a direct correlation between identifying the needs and wants of others and being popular.
The studies involved more than 2000 children aged two to 10 years across Asia, Australia, Europe and North America.
Popularity was measured by anonymous ratings from classroom peers and teachers.
“The meta-analysis has allowed us to look at the findings across multiple studies and confirm there is a direct link between theory of mind and popularity in children,” Professor Slaughter said.
“The ability to tell what others are thinking, feelings and wanting is a basic precursor to emotional intelligence in adults.
“Understanding the mental perspectives of others is important both for making friends in the early school years and in maintaining friendships as children grow older.”
The study also found this link to be weaker for boys than girls, suggesting gender differences in how children relate to each other.
“Girls’ friendships tend to be more interpersonally oriented,” Professor Slaughter said.
“Whereas boys may resolve a conflict by wrestling each other, girls often work out their differences through negotiation and that requires an understanding of the other person’s perspective.”