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Infants Track False Beliefs

One-year-old children predict actions of agents with false beliefs about the locations of objects \citep{Clements:1994cw,Onishi:2005hm,Southgate:2007js}, and about the contents of containers \citep{he:2011_false}, taking into account verbal communication \citep{Song:2008qo,scott:2012_verbal_fb}. They will also choose ways of helping \citep[]{Buttelmann:2009gy} and communicating \citep{Knudsen:2011fk,southgate:2010fb} with others depending on whether their beliefs are true or false. And in much the way that irrelevant facts about the contents of others’ beliefs modulate adult subjects’ response times, such facts also affect how long 7-month-old infants look at some stimuli \citep[]{kovacs_social_2010}.
How can we test whether someone is able to ascribe beliefs to others? Here is one quite famous way to test this, perhaps some of you are even aware of it already. Let's suppose I am the experimenter and you are the subjects. First I tell you a story ...

‘Maxi puts his chocolate in the BLUE box and leaves the room to play. While he is away (and cannot see), his mother moves the chocolate from the BLUE box to the GREEN box. Later Maxi returns. He wants his chocolate.’

In a standard \textit{false belief task}, `[t]he subject is aware that he/she and another person [Maxi] witness a certain state of affairs x. Then, in the absence of the other person the subject witnesses an unexpected change in the state of affairs from x to y' \citep[p.\ 106]{Wimmer:1983dz}. The task is designed to measure the subject's sensitivity to the probability that Maxi will falsely believe x to obtain.


green box


I wonder where Maxi will look for his chocolate

‘Where will Maxi look for his chocolate?’

Wimmer & Perner 1983

Recall the experiment that got us started.
These experimenters added an anticipation prompt and measured to which box subjects looked first \citep{Clements:1994cw}.
(Actually they didn't use this story; theirs was about a mouse called Sam and some cheese, but the differences needn't concern us.)
What got me hooked philosophical psychology, and on philosophical issues in the development of mindreading in particular was a brilliant finding by Wendy Clements who was Josef Perner's phd student.

Clements & Perner 1994 figure 1

These findings were carefully confirmed \citep{Clements:2000nc,Garnham:2001ql,Ruffman:2001ng}.
Around 2000 there were a variety of findings pointing in the direction of a confict between different measures.
These included studies on word learning \citep{Carpenter:2002gc,Happe:2002sr} and false denials \citep{Polak:1999xr}.
But relatively few people were interested until ...

violation-of-expectations at 15 months of age

pointing at 18 months of age

Infants track others’ false beliefs from around 7 months of age.

Kulka & Rakoczy, 2018

There are some problems with replicating some of the studies which provide evidence for infant mindreading, as many of you are probably already aware. (Here’s a fragment of a spreadsheet created by Louisa Kulka and Hannes Rakoczy.)
One response to these difficulties with replication would be to say we just cannot theories about infants until it has been cleared up.
For my part, I think the replication issue is super significant and the fallout is likely to be illuminating. But I also note that plenty of infant mindreading studies have been successfully replicated. So while we should be cautious about details (and in particular about any one type of measure or scenario), my sense is that there is clearly an interaction between measures of mindreading and age.

Infants track others’ false beliefs from around 7 months of age.