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Acting upon versus telling about false-beliefs : a comparison of two procedures for accessing young children's early theories of mind Hala, Suzanne Marie Pauline


This report is intended to help arbitrate the unsettled matter of when in the course of their early cognitive development children first evidence some "theory-like" understanding of their own and others' mental lives. To this end, this study directly compared results obtained through the administration of two competing assessment procedures, each of which has been used to support conflicting claims regarding the earliest age at which children first evidence an understanding of the possibility of false beliefs. A substantial body of recent research has contributed to a growing, but perhaps premature consensus that children under 4 years of age do not recognize the possibility of counterfactual beliefs in others and consequently lack any early theory of mind. Much of the evidence in support of this late-onset view is based upon the use of an "unexpected change" task developed by Wimmer and Perner (1983) in which children are asked to predict where an inadequately informed story character will search for an object. In contrast to these findings results obtained using a recently developed hide-and-seek task, which directly assessed children's abilities to generate misleading clues in order to produce a false-belief in another, offered strong support for a much earlier-onset position (Chandler, Fritz & Hala, in press). Despite strong methodologic reasons in favour of accepting the results of this investigation the possibility remained that the 3-year-olds in the Chandler et al. study were a special population that might also have succeeded in the unexpected change task had they been given it. To guard against this possibility the present study provided a within-subject comparison of both the unexpected change procedure and the newer hide-and-seek procedure based on the responses of 30 children ages 3.0, 3.5 and 4.0 years. A further test of false-belief understanding was provided by asking subjects to comment directly upon their opponent's belief based on subjects' own misleading actions. As predicted even young 3-year-olds demonstrated the ability to provide misleading clues to their opponent but when faced with the unexpected change task these youngest subjects performed poorly. When responding to the false-belief question based on their own deceptive actions, however, even these youngest subjects showed strong evidence of understanding the possibility of false beliefs in others.

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