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Pragmatic Development and the False Belief Task

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Nativists about theory of mind have typically explained why children below the age of four fail the false belief task by appealing to the demands that these tasks place on children’s developing executive abilities. However, this appeal to executive functioning cannot explain a wide range of evidence showing that social and linguistic factors also affect when children pass this task. In this paper, I present a revised nativist proposal about theory of mind development that is able to accommodate these findings, which I call the pragmatic development account. According to this proposal, we can gain a better understanding of the shift in children’s performance on standard false-belief tasks around four years of age by considering how children’s experiences with the pragmatics of belief discourse affect the way they interpret the task.

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  1. 1.

    This is a weak form of presupposition accommodation, which takes place whenever speakers dynamically update the set of propositions that are taken to be a part of the common ground in response to changes in the conversational context. Thus, for example, a felicitous utterance of “It was Jon who broke the doorknob” presupposes that the doorknob has been broken, and this leads the listener to infer that “the doorknob has been broken” is now a part of the common ground (Stalnaker 1998).

  2. 2.

    Corpus analyses are due to Kaitlyn Harrigan and Aaron White.

  3. 3.

    There may be other reasons for the prevalence of desire-talk in child-directed speech when compared to belief-talk. For instance, it may be that caregivers query children about their desires much more often than their beliefs because caregivers are more interested in satisfying children’s needs than in hearing about what they think.

  4. 4.

    Similarly, consider how the primary illocutionary act behind the familiar “Could you pass the salt?” is a request for salt, not question about someone’s salt-passing abilities (Searle 1975).

  5. 5.

    Third-personal instances of “S thinks that P″ are also often indirect. For instance, suppose that Roberta were to answer Agnes’ query from the dialogue above with “Carlos thinks it starts at 7 pm.” Once again, the primary illocutionary act in this case is not to draw attention to Carlos’ beliefs per se, but rather to reply to the speaker’s question. Roberta’s use of ‘think,’ in this utterance, serves an evidential function: it provides information about the source of Roberta’s reply, and it adds a qualification about the reliability of that source. Thus, we might accurately paraphrase Roberta’s utterance here as, “To the best of my knowledge, the game starts at 7 pm. I learned this from Carlos” (Simons 2007).

    Second-personal instances of ‘think’ are often indirect as well. If I ask, “Do you think it’s going to rain?” I am effectively asking whether it will rain. Here too, the question under discussion does not concern your mental states, but rather facts about the world.

  6. 6.

    In an unexpected-contents FBT, children are shown a container that looks like it should contain one thing (e.g. candy), but really contains another (e.g. pencils). They are then asked to say what another ignorant agent will think is in the box, or what they themselves originally thought was in the box before seeing its contents. In a deceptive-object FBT, they are shown an object that looks like one thing (e.g. a rock), but is really another (e.g. a sponge), and then get asked a similar set of questions as in the unexpected-contents task.

  7. 7.

    While some authors have appealed to deep cultural differences between Western and Eastern societies (e.g. individualist versus collectivist value systems) in order to explain cultural variation on theory of mind tasks, (Liu et al. 2008; Shahaeian et al. 2011), others have proposed that much of this variation may be due to factors that cross-cut such cultural divides: for instance, Hughes et al. (2014) suggest that the age at which children begin primary schooling, and the experiences that they gain in formal pedagogical contexts, may explain differences in FBT performance among various child populations, both in Western and Eastern countries (Hughes et al. 2014).

  8. 8.

    The asymmetric roles of beliefs and desires in folk psychological explanation is itself a fact in need of some explanation. Steglich-Petersen and Michael (2015) have recently argued that this is due to the fact that one may substitute one’s own beliefs into most folk psychological explanations and still have them make sense, but that the same is not true of our desires; thus, we must make overt reference to desires in our folk psychological explanations because this is information that cannot be presupposed in a coherent explanation of behavior.

  9. 9.

    ‘Want’ can be used imperatively (e.g. “Do you want to cut that out?” really means “Cut that out!”) But given that desire discourse is also more frequent than belief discourse, genuine attributive uses of ‘want’ are likely to be common enough that it would not pose a comparable learning challenge.

  10. 10.

    In the Control Question condition, the experimenter first asks, “Where is the banana now?” and then proceed with the test question. In the Goal condition, the experimenter says, “Now Lola is very hungry and wants the bananas” (Rubio-Fernández and Geurts 2015, 10). Of the two conditions, the Goal condition is most clearly explained by the helping interpretation; however, the Control Question condition is amenable to it as well. Merely mentioning the bananas may be enough to trigger the helping motivation.


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I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers, Valentine Hacquard, John Michael, Paul Pietroski, Shannon Spaulding, J. Robert Thompson, Alexander Williams, and especially Peter Carruthers for their comments on various drafts of this paper. I would also like to acknowledge the feedback I’ve received from audiences from the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, the Canadian Philosophical Association, and the Department of Linguistics at the University of Maryland, College Park. This research was funded in part by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Fellowship 752-2014-0035.

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Westra, E. Pragmatic Development and the False Belief Task. Rev.Phil.Psych. 8, 235–257 (2017).

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