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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Event saliency as a constraint upon young children’s developing theories of mind Fritz, Anna Sabine


This dissertation explores the previously underrecognized possibility that especially salient perceptual events might act to interfere with young children’s abilities to grasp the possibility of false beliefs and consequently to hold to a so-called “theory of mind”. With the aim of determining whether event saliency does in fact operate as such a constraining factor upon 3- year-olds’ typical performance on so-called standard measures of false-belief understanding, the present study sequence was designed to minimize the saliency-generating conditions operative in the two most widely used standard measures of false-belief understanding, the “Unexpected Change Task” (Wimmer & Perner, 1983) and the “Unexpected Contents Tasks” (Astington & Gopnik, 1987; Wimmer, Hogrefe & Perner, 1986). Both of these standard procedures make use of experimental protocols that inadvertently attach special saliency to parts of the stimulus narrative which, if accorded undue emphasis in the thinking of young children, will lead them into making false-belief errors. It was reasoned that if 3-year-old children could competently ascribe false beliefs to themselves and others when the effects of such event saliency were reduced or eliminated, then the commonly held assumption that 3-year-olds’ routine failures on these measures stem from some fundamental inability to recognize the possibility of false belief would be called into question. In the first and most popular measure of false-belief understanding, the Unexpected Change Task, children are asked to predict where an inadequately informed protagonist will search for candy that has been relocated in his absence. In Study One the saliency-generating conditions seen to operate in this measure were minimized by substituting for the candy usually employed a hypothetical or “pretend chocolate”. In the alternative standard Unexpected Contents Task, subjects are asked to comment upon their own and others’ false beliefs about the contents of a box upon having discovered that it contains items different from those normally expected. In Study Two the perceptual saliency effects thought to be associated with the unexpected contents employed in the standard procedures were reduced by arranging that the box was left empty, rather than filled with some unexpected con tents. Results for Study One and Study Two showed that the present saliency manipulations had the predicted facilitating effects upon 3-year-olds’ abilities to ascribe false beliefs to themselves and other persons. Of the 54 3-year-olds, who participated in Study One, 79% (59% younger and 89% older 3-yearolds) were able to correctly predict the false belief of the story character when they were no longer distracted by especially salient perceptual events. Successful performance was even more impressive in Study Two. Of the 55 participating subjects, 87% (78% younger and 96% older 3-year-olds) were able to recall their own prior beliefs about the contents of a box even though they recognized that subsequent events had rendered these earlier beliefs false. Similarly, of the 29 3-year-olds who participated in the parallel task of correctly identifying another person’s now false belief about the changed contents of a box, 78% of the younger and 91% of the older 3-year-olds were able to successfully do so. These findings suggest that the typically poor performance of 3-year-olds on standard versions of these false belief measures is at least a partial result of experimental conditions that promote the operation of saliency biases. These results lend further support to the growing number of other studies that show such young children already to appreciate the role of mind in the process of knowledge acquisition.

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