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Are There Signature Limits in Early Theory of Mind? (2017)

by Ella Fizke, Stephen A. Butterfill, Lea van de Loo, Eva Reindl, and Rakoczy, Hannes

---Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 162(Supplement C), pp. 209--224
--- links: external [doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2017.05.005]


Current theory-of-mind research faces the challenge of reconciling two sets of seemingly incompatible findings: Whereas children come to solve explicit verbal false belief (FB) tasks from around 4 years of age, recent studies with various less explicit measures such as looking time, anticipatory looking, and spontaneous behavior suggest that even infants can succeed on some FB tasks. In response to this tension, two-systems theories propose to distinguish between an early-developing system, tracking simple forms of mental states, and a later-developing system, based on fully developed concepts of belief and other propositional attitudes. One prediction of such theories is that the early-developing system has signature limits concerning aspectuality. We tested this prediction in two experiments. The first experiment showed (in line with previous findings) that 2- and 3-year-olds take into account a protagonist’s true or false belief about the location of an object in their active helping behavior. In contrast, toddlers’ helping behavior did not differentiate between true and false belief conditions when the protagonist’s belief essentially involved aspectuality. Experiment 2 replicated these findings with a more stringent method designed to rule out more parsimonious explanations. Taken together, the current findings are compatible with the possibility that early theory-of-mind reasoning is subject to signature limits as predicted by the two-systems account.