True Belief Belies False Belief: Recent Findings of Competence in Infants and Limitations in 5-Year-Olds, and Implications for Theory of Mind Development

Review of Philosophy and Psychology 2 (3):429-447 (2011)
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False belief tasks have enjoyed a monopoly in the research on children’s development of a theory of mind. They have been granted this status because they promise to deliver an unambiguous assessment of children’s understanding of the representational nature of mental states. Their poor cousins, true belief tasks, have been relegated to occasional service as control tasks. That this is their only role has been due to the universal assumption that correct answers on true belief tasks are inherently ambiguous regarding the level of the child’s understanding of mental states. It has also been due to the universal assumption that nothing in the child’s developing theory of mind would lead to systematically incorrect answers on true belief tasks. We review new findings that 4- and 5-year-olds do err, systematically and profoundly, on the true belief versions of all the extant belief tasks. This reveals an intermediate level of understanding in the development of children’s theory of mind. Researchers have been unaware of this intermediate level because it produces correct answers in false belief tasks. A simple two-task battery—one true belief task and one false belief task—is sufficient to remove the ambiguity from each task. The new findings show that children do not acquire an understanding of beliefs, and hence a representational theory of mind, until after 6 years of age, or 2 years later than most developmental psychologists have concluded. This raises the question of how to interpret other new findings that infants are able to pass false belief tasks. We review these new infant studies, as well as recent studies on chimpanzees, in light of older children’s failure on true belief tasks, and end with some speculation about how all of these new findings might be reconciled.

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Joseph Hedger
Syracuse University


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