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Chapter: Psychology: Development

Social Cognition and Theory of Mind

The social world provides yet another domain in which young children are surpris-ingly competent .



The social world provides yet another domain in which young children are surpris-ingly competent (Striano & Reid, 2006). For example, infants seem to have some understanding of other people’s intentions. Specifically, they understand the world they observe in terms of others’ goals, and not just their movements. In one study, 6-month-old infants saw an actor reach for a ball that was sitting just to the right of a teddy bear. (The left–right position of the toys was reversed for half of the infants tested.) The infant watched this event over and over, until he became bored with it. At that point, the position of the toys was switched, so now the teddy bear was on the right. Then the infant was shown one of two test events. In one, the actor again reached for the ball (although, given the switch in position, this was the first time the infant had seen a reach toward the left). In the other condition, the actor again reached for the object on the right (although, given the switch, this was the first time the infant had seen a reach toward the teddy bear).


If, in the initial observation, the infant was focusing on behavior (“reach right”), then the reach-for-ball test event involves a change, and so will be a surprise. If, however, the infant was focusing on the goal (“reach for ball”), then it is the reach for the teddy bear that involves a change, and will be a surprise. And, in fact, the latter is what the data show: Six-month-olds are more surprised by the change in goal than by the change in behavior (A. L. Woodward, 1998; Figure 14.15). Apparently, and contrary to Piaget, they understand that the object reached for is separate from the reach itself, and they are sophisticated enough in their perceptions that they understand others’ actions in terms of intended goals (see also Brandone & Wellman, 2009; Luo & Baillargeon, 2005; Surian, Caldi, & Sperber, 2007; Woodward, 2009).


This emerging understanding of others’ intentions is important, because it allows the young child to make sense of, and in many cases predict, how others will behave. However, understanding intentions is just one aspect of the young child’s developing theory of mind—the set of beliefs that someone employs whenever she tries to makesense of her own behavior or that of others (Leslie, 1992; D. Premack & Woodruff, 1978;

H. M. Wellman, 1990). The theory of mind also involves preferences—and the young child must come to understand that people vary in their preferences and that people tend to make choices in accord with their preferences. Here, too, we see early competence: In one study, 18-month-olds watched as experimenters made “yuck” faces after tasting one food and smiled broadly after tasting another. The experimenters then made a general request to these toddlers for food, and the children responded appropriately—offering the food that the experimenter preferred, even if the children themselves preferred the other food (Repacholi & Gopnik, 1997; Rieffe, Terwogt, Koops, Stegge, & Oomen, 2001; for more on the child’s theory of mind, see A. Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997).


Yet another aspect of the theory of mind involves beliefs. Suppose you tell 3-year-old Susie that Johnny wants to play with his puppy. You also tell her that Johnny thinks the puppy is under the piano. If Susie is now asked where Johnny will look, she will sensi-bly say that he will look under the piano (H. M. Wellman & Bartsch, 1988). Like an adult, a 3-year-old understands that a person’s actions depend not just on what he sees and desires, but also on what he believes.


Let’s be careful, though, not to overstate young children’s competence. If asked, for example, what color an object is, 3-year-olds claim that they can find out just as easily by touching an object as they can by looking at it (O’Neill, Astington, & Flavell, 1992). Likewise, 4-year-olds will confidently assert that they have always known something even if they first learned it from the experimenter just moments earlier (M. Taylor, Esbensen, & Bennett, 1994).


Another limitation concerns the child’s understanding of false beliefs. According to many authors, a 3-year-old does not understand that beliefs can be true or false and that different people can have different beliefs. Evidence comes from studies using false-belief tests (Wimmer & Perner, 1983; also Lang & Perner, 2002). In a typical study of this kind, a child and a teddy bear sit in front of two boxes, one red and the other green. The experimenter opens the red box and puts a ball in it. He then opens the green box and shows the child—and the bear—that this box is empty. The teddy bear is now taken out of the room (to play for a while), and the experimenter and the child move the ball from the red box into the green one. Next comes the crucial step. The teddy bear is brought back into the room, and the child is asked, “Where will the teddy look for the ball?” Virtually all 3-year-olds and some 4-year-olds will answer, “In the green box.” If you ask them why, they will answer, “Because that’s where it is.” It would appear, then, that these children do not really understand the nature of belief. They seem to assume that their beliefs are inevitably shared by others, and likewise, they seem not to under-stand that others might have beliefs that are false (Figure 14.16).

However, by age 4-1/2 or so, children get the idea that not all knowledge is shared. If they are asked, “Where will the teddy look for the candy?” they will answer, “He’ll look in the red box because that’s where he thinks the candy is” (H. Wellman & Lagattuta, 2000; H. Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001). The children now seem to have learned that different individuals have different beliefs, and that one’s beliefs depend on access to the relevant information.


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