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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The role of personal involvement in accessing false-belief understanding Hala, Suzanne Marie Pauline


This dissertation provides the conducting of one of the first systematic explorations of the Effects of actively involving young three-year-olds in otherwise standard assessment measures of false-belief understanding. Specifically, the study sequence reported here was designed with the aim of determining whether having young subjects actively participate in the strategic planning of a deception would facilitate their performance on questions concerning another's beliefs. Converging results obtained using an earlier generation of "standard" assessment strategies have been taken by many investigators concerned with developing "theories of mind" to suggest that children under the age of 4 lacked any understanding of false-belief. In contrast to results obtained using these earlier measures, several more recent research efforts have demonstrated surprising competencies among even young 3-year-olds. With these newer results has come a counterpart shift in research interest, away from the threshold question of whether 3 year-olds have any false-belief understanding at all, and toward potentially more promising theoretical and procedural questions concerned with how whatever abilities such children already do possess might best be accessed. The series of studies reported here was designed with the purpose of addressing this more current issue through an examination of the effects of modifying standard assessment procedures in such a way as to place subjects themselves in the central role of bringing about another person's false beliefs through their own deceptive efforts. In the first and most popular of the standard measures, the unexpected transfer task, subjects are asked to predict where a story character will search for an object that has been relocated or "unexpectedly transferred" in his or her absence. Study 1 introduced an active version of this task, in which subjects themselves were assigned the job of hiding an object from a protagonist. Study 2 is based on the alternative assessment procedure, the unexpected contents task. In the standard version of this measure, subjects are shown a stereotypical box the usual contents of which have been removed and replaced with some surprising or "unexpected" contents. Subjects are then required to comment upon what another person viewing the closed box would believe its contents to be. Study 2 , like Study 1, once again afforded subjects with the opportunity to create a false belief in another — in this case by first hiding the stereotypical contents of a box, and then replacing these original contents with some unexpected object. The results from these first two studies showed that when subjects were actively involved in planning and carrying out a deception, even the youngest three-year-olds went on to correctly predict another's consequent false beliefs. Of the 40 subjects who completed the procedures in Study 1,87.5% correctly predicted where the protagonist would mistakenly look for the now relocated object and 70% also correctly responded that a protagonist would think the object was still in its original location. Comparable results were obtained using the active unexpected contents procedure in Study 2. Of the subjects who had the opportunity to themselves substitute some surprise item for the box's original contents, 81% correctly predicted that the protagonist would mistakenly believe the box to still hold its more usual contents. Study 3 was introduced in order to rule out potential competing explanations for this pattern of results. Because, in contrast to most standard unexpected change tasks, the active tasks reported here employed realpeople in an explicitly deceptive context, it was possible that these factors, rather than subjects' active involvement, were responsible for their unusually good performance. Study 3 was designed to control for such alternate explanations by having subjects passively observe while an experimenter both planned and carried out a deception on another real person. In contrast to the good performance obtained on the more active procedures in Studies I and 2, of the twenty 3-year-olds who participated in this observer condition, only 40% went on to correctly answer questions about the protagonist's resulting false belief. The results from these first three studies offer strong support for the claim that having young 3-year-old subjects actively involved in the strategic act of carrying out a deception worked to facilitate their performance on otherwise standard false-belief test questions. What was proposed in this thesis was that the good results obtained on the active conditions were primarily due to having provided subjects with the opportunity to generate a strategicplan aimed at manipulating another's beliefs. Study 4 was designed to further test this hypothesis by introducing a new planning only condition in which subjects were required to generate a strategic plan to deceive another but were themselves prevented from physically carrying out this plan. In this fourth, and final study, 60 subjects were randomly assigned to one of three conditions, an active condition; and observer condition; and the novel, planning only condition. As predicted, performance on both the active and planning only conditions was superior to that of subjects in the observer condition. Also in line with the hypothesis put forward in this thesis, subjects in the planning only condition were as accurate in their predictions about other's resulting false beliefs as were those in the active condition. For the planning only condition, 75% of subjects were correct for the look question and 70% correct for the think question as compared to the active condition in which a comparable 80% were correct in their responses to the look question and 70% correct for the think question. Taken altogether, the evidence from this series of studies supports the claim that, when allowed to go about the ordinary business of planning their interactions with reference to the mental lives of other persons, even young 3-year-olds clearly demonstrate an understanding that people can come to hold and to act upon false beliefs. The research reported thus not only corroborates evidence from other sources that suggests that 3-year-olds already do have a considerable grasp of the representational nature of the mind but also yields new insights into the importance of providing subjects with a central and active role in assessing the relevance of another's representational state.

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