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Toddlers can tell when others hold 'false beliefs'

A new study finds children at 2.5 years old can identify people acting on 'false beliefs', an ability most researchers believe will not develop until age 4.

Theory of mind (or ToM) is the ability to attribute different mental states — beliefs, intention, desires and more — to ourselves and others. Also, to be able to understand that other people have beliefs and ideas different from our own. Wikipedia

"Having the ability to represent false beliefs means recognizing that others can have different thoughts from us," explains Peipei Setoh, who conducted the study with Renée Baillargeon, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, and fellow graduate student Rose Scott. Setoh is now a professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Most psychologists believe false-belief understanding develops at age 4, when children begin to answer direct questions about other people. Some, including Baillargeon, believe traditional psychological tests are too difficult for younger children to reveal their true understanding of different world views.

"The field is very divided and we are trying to reconcile all of the evidence," Baillargeon adds. In the study, Baillargeon and her colleagues found that 30 and 33 month-old toddlers successfully demonstrate an understanding of false-belief using a modified version of the well-known Sally-Anne test. That test evaluates a child's expectations of how someone will act based on a person's 'false beliefs'.

If Sally hides a toy in a basket before she leaves, when she returns she expects the toy to be in the basket.

Her friend Anne moves the toy from the basket to a box while Sally is gone. Sally still thinks the toy is in the basket when she returns.

Someone watching will expect Sally to act on her false belief.


In this test, when asked where Sally think's the toy is located 4-year-old children answer "the basket " — Sally's 'false belief' based on her having hid the toy. However, younger children respond "it is in the box" based on Anne's later actions.

Baillargeon's previous research shows children's nonverbal behavior — such as staring longer at a scene when something unexpected happens — displays understanding something has changed and confirms an understanding of  'false beliefs' or unanticipated behavior. They may be unable to convey that on Sally-Anne tests, she feels, as toddlers are overwhelmed by one aspect of the traditional test.

She developed a simpler version using a character named Emma. In Baillargeon's new version of the test, Emma's toy is moved off location, completely out of the scene. "It's much easier to inhibit or suppress a response when you don't know where the toy actually is," Baillargeon explains. A younger child cannot tell you where the toy is if they do not see it themselves anymore.

Baillargeon also gave children a chance to prepare for the test by giving them two practice questions. With these 2 modifications, both 30 and 33 month old toddlers are able to tell researchers where Emma will look for the object, showing they understand Emma has a false belief about the object's location. With only one practice trial all of the toddlers failed, also failing when the object moved to another hiding location within the picture. Baillargeon believes "... a little bit of practice goes a long way."

Other researchers have reported children with more exposure to talking — children with siblings, or simply better individual language ability — perform better on the traditional Sally-Anne test. The test is used in developmental psychology to measure a "theory-of-mind" in children with autistic spectrum disorders. And because of autism's broad spectrum, there will always be children who pass 'false-belief' tasks, even the Sally-Anne test.

Research results are reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Among social scientists interested in the development of children’s ability to infer mental states, an enduring controversy concerns false-belief understanding. When tested with traditional tasks, which require answering questions about the likely actions of agents with false beliefs, children do not succeed until age 4 y or later. When given non-traditional tasks without such questions, however, children succeed much earlier. Are traditional tasks more difficult because they tap an advanced form of false-belief understanding, or because they impose greater processing demands? Our experiments support the latter possibility: 2.5-y-old toddlers succeeded at a traditional task when response-generation and inhibitory-control demands were both reduced. Traditional tasks thus assess the same form of false-belief understanding as nontraditional tasks but impose additional processing demands.

When tested with traditional false-belief tasks, which require answering a standard question about the likely behavior of an agent with a false belief, children perform below chance until age 4 y or later. When tested without such questions, however, children give evidence of false-belief understanding much earlier. Are traditional tasks difficult because they tap a more advanced form of false-belief understanding (fundamental-change view) or because they impose greater processing demands (processing-demands view)? Evidence that young children succeed at traditional false-belief tasks when processing demands are reduced would support the latter view. In prior research, reductions in inhibitory-control demands led to improvements in young children’s performance, but often only to chance (instead of below-chance) levels. Here we examined whether further reductions in processing demands might lead to success. We speculated that: (i) young children could respond randomly in a traditional low-inhibition task because their limited information-processing resources are overwhelmed by the total concurrent processing demands in the task; and (ii) these demands include those from the response-generation process activated by the standard question. This analysis suggested that 2.5-y-old toddlers might succeed at a traditional low-inhibition task if response-generation demands were also reduced via practice trials. As predicted, toddlers performed above chance following two response-generation practice trials; toddlers failed when these trials either were rendered less effective or were used in a high-inhibition task. These results support the processing-demands view: Even toddlers succeed at a traditional false-belief task when overall processing demands are reduced.

Key words: theory of mind psychological reasoning false-belief understanding inhibitory control information-processing resources

Editor's notes: To reach Renée Baillargeon, call 217-333-5557; email rbaillar@illinois.edu.

The paper, "Two-and-a-half-year-olds succeed at a traditional false-belief task with reduced processing demands" is available online and from the U of I. News Bureau.
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Dec 6, 2016   Fetal Timeline   Maternal Timeline   News   News Archive   

The ability to attribute different mental states to others, is called a Theory of Mind.
Most child psychologists believe only a child 4 years or older is capable of
thinking about others.
Image Credit:
public domain



Phospholid by Wikipedia