Friday, November 19, 2010

Theory of Mind and Perspective Taking

There's a wealth of new and very interesting articles in the November Issue of Developmental Psychology relating to theory of mind and perspective taking:
  • in their article "True or false: Do 5-year-olds understand belief?" William V. Fabricius and his colleagues argue that conventional theory of mind tests don't really show a capacity for false belief understanding but instead
    "young children may only appreciate that people will know certain things and remain ignorant of certain other things as a function of perceptual accessibility. The argument goes on to suggest that in instances in which an individual does not know something, young children make a logical leap and judge that this individual is bound to be mistaken and that he or she will choose an incorrect option when given a choice between correct and incorrect alternatives."
    This has been called perceptual access reasoning in which children follow two principles:
    "(a) seeing and other forms of perceptual access lead to knowing, and lacking perceptual access leads to not knowing and (b) knowing leads to acting correctly, and not knowing leads to acting incorrectly."
    In a standard false belief task the child can only choose between two options (e.g. the toy is either in the red or the blue box). This makes their responses ambiguous because it is not clear whether children pass this task because they understand that the other person will act on a false belief/mental representation or simpy because they reason that the person will make the wrong choice as he or she didn't have perceptual access to the situation.
    The experiments reported in this article indicate that children only really start reasoning about beliefs at age six. Favicus et al conclude that:
    "because most prior studies have failed to detect young children's use of perceptual access reasoning, they have overestimated their understanding of false beliefs."
  • In an article called "Forgetting common ground: Six- to seven-year-olds have an overinterpretive theory of mind." Kristin Hansen Lagattuta report a study in which
    Four- to 9-year-olds and adults (N = 256) viewed a series of pictures that were covered with occluders to reveal nondescript or identifiable parts. Participants predicted how 3 characters, 1 who had previously viewed the full picture and 2 who had not, would interpret the obstructed drawings. Results showed significant development between 4 and 9 years and between 9 years and adulthood in understanding thought diversity as well as situations in which people should think alike. There was also evidence for aU-shaped developmental curve, with 6- to 7-year-olds most often overextending the rule that people will think differently, particularly on the initial testing trials. Performance on the different interpretive theory-of-mind measures was differentially related to individual differences in inhibitory control and verbal working memory.
  • Monica Tsethlikai reports on "The Influence of a Friend's Perspective on American Indian Children's Recall of Previously Misconstrued Events":
    The ability of American Indian children (N = 99; 7–12 years of age) to reframe a memory of a friend's seemingly mean-spirited actions (Story 1) after hearing the friend's perspective detailing her/his good intentions (Story 2) was explored. Children in a control group heard an unrelated Story 2 and did not alter their retelling of Story 1. Good verbal skills facilitated the integration of the friend's perspective in memory for the children who heard the friend's explanation. Higher scores on the working memory and inhibition tasks were associated with higher verbal ability scores. Older children had better working memory and inhibitory skills than younger children. Cultural engagement predicted better social competence ratings but not higher memory reframing scores as predicted.
  • Finally, there's an interesting article by Christina M. Atance et al. on perspective taking and "Preschoolers' Understanding of Others' Desires: Fulfilling Mine Enhances My Understanding of Yours." Here's the abstract:
    We developed a gift-giving task requiring children to identify their mother's desire, when her desire differed from theirs. We found a developmental change: 3- and 4-year-olds performed more poorly than 5-year-olds (Experiment 1). A modified version of this task (Experiment 2) revealed that 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds whose desires had been fulfilled chose an appropriate gift for their mothers significantly more often than children whose desires were unfulfilled. Children who merely anticipated desire fulfillment also outperformed children whose desires were unfulfilled. Analysis of children's verbal explanations provides converging evidence that desire fulfillment enhanced children's tendency to adopt the perspective of their mother and justify their choices by referencing her desires. Discussion focuses on why desire fulfillment enhances children's ability to consider the desires of others.

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