[Paleopsych] SW: Children and False Belief

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Mon Jun 6 17:59:19 UTC 2005

Cognitive Science: Children and False Belief

    The following points are made by J. Perner and T. Ruffman (Science
    2005 308:214):
    1) Although primates and other animals seem to have some understanding
    of mind (that is, an understanding of the behavior of others), the
    concept of belief seems to be a specifically human ability.
    Comprehending false belief is the clearest sign of understanding a
    critical aspect of the mind: its subjectivity and its susceptibility
    to manipulation by information. It is thought that children develop an
    understanding of false belief around 4 years of age. However, Onishi
    and Baillargeon [1] report that infants as young as 15 months have
    insight into whether a person acts on the basis of a mistaken view
    (false belief) about the world. This discrepancy touches on important
    issues. An understanding of false belief at 4 years of age suggests
    that this ability may be constructed in a cultural process tied to
    language acquisition. In contrast, competence at 15 months suggests
    that this ability is part of our purely biological inheritance. What
    could account for the discrepant findings?
    2) Children's understanding of false belief has hitherto been assessed
    using a verbal false-belief task in which the experimenter enacts
    stories. An example of such a story is as follows: A protagonist
    (let's call him Max) puts a toy or doll (object) in one location and
    then doesn't see it moved to a second location [2]. When asked by the
    experimenter, most 3-year-olds wrongly claim that Max will look for
    the object in the second location (where they know it is). This
    finding with 3-year-olds has been confirmed despite many attempts to
    improve the potential shortcomings of the verbal false-belief task
    [3]. These results contrast with those from Onishi and Baillargeon's
    study in which 15-month-old infants were tested with a nonverbal
    false-belief test.
    3) In this test, infants were familiarized with an adult actor hiding
    and then retrieving a toy (a plastic slice of water melon) in either a
    yellow or a green box. The looking times of the infant subjects were
    then computed in a series of trials that tested whether the actor held
    a true or false belief about the location of the toy. Onishi and
    Baillargeon found that the infants "expected" the actor to search for
    the toy based on the actor's belief about its location, regardless of
    whether the location was actually correct. So, why would 3-year-olds
    fail to provide the correct answer in a verbal false-belief test, when
    15-month-old infants can correctly anticipate erroneous actions in the
    nonverbal false-belief test?
    4) Part of the explanation might come from previous studies that used
    eye gaze as a measure of understanding in 3-year-olds. Three-year-olds
    look to the correct (initial) location when anticipating Max's return
    there, even when they explicitly make the incorrect claim that Max
    will go to the second location. This early indication of understanding
    Max's mistake has been dubbed implicit, because many of these children
    show no awareness of the knowledge implicitly conveyed in their
    correct eye gaze (4). Nonetheless, children at the age of 2.5 years
    show absolutely no sign of this earlier, implicit understanding (5).
    Converging evidence comes from children's word learning, which also
    shows sensitivity to false belief around 3 years and not before. In
    sum, the evidence of an earlier, implicit understanding does not solve
    but rather exacerbates the puzzle about Onishi and Baillargeon's
    finding with infants: Where would the implicit understanding be hiding
    between 15 months and 3 years?
    5) By adopting particular assumptions about how infants encode events
    and behavior, the authors (Perner and Ruffman) propose two
    explanations for the apparent early competence of infants that imply
    an evolutionary, innate bias for understanding the mind. Infants
    encode events and behavior the way they do because this encoding
    captures something useful about how people tend to act only because
    people are endowed with minds. Yet there is no need to assume an
    understanding on the infant's part that a mind mediates a particular
    References (abridged):
    1. K. H. Onishi, R. Baillargeon, Science 308, 255 (2005)
    2. H. Wimmer, J. Perner, Cognition 13, 103 (1983)
    3. H. M. Wellman, D. Cross, J. Watson, Child Dev. 72, 655 (2001)
    4. T. Ruffman, W. Garnham, A. Import, D. J. Connolly, J. Exp. Child
    Psychol. 80, 201 (2001)
    5. W. A. Clements, J. Perner, Cognit. Dev. 9, 377 (1994)
    Science http://www.sciencemag.org

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