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‘Theory of Mind’ and Tracking Speakers’ Intentions

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Typical theory of mind tasks assess children’s ability to attribute a false belief in order to predict or explain an action. According to these standard tasks, young children do not represent the independent (mistaken) beliefs of others until the fourth year—yet long before this, children are able to track speakers’ intentions in order to learn new words. Might communication be a privileged domain for theory of mind? In the present study we explored pre-schoolers’ ability to track a false belief in order to acquire a novel word. A puppet labeled a novel object in a false belief condition (contents of a box had been switched without her knowledge), and a true belief condition (contents switched in her presence). Children were significantly better at tracking the puppet’s false belief in the word-learning task than in a standard false belief test. Possible reasons for this advantage are discussed, and the suggestion made that representation of mental states may emerge precociously in the service of communication.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: SGDP Research Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London

Publication date: 2002-02-01

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