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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
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).
Corpus analyses are due to Kaitlyn Harrigan and Aaron White.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
‘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.
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.
Baillargeon, Renee, R.M. Scott, and Zijing He. 2010. False-belief understanding in infants. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 14: 110–117.
Barrett, H. Clark, Tanya Broesch, Rose M. Scott, Zijing He, Renée Baillargeon, Di Wu, Matthias Bolz, et al. 2013. Early false-belief understanding in traditional non-western societies. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 280: 20122654.
Behne, Tanya, Malinda Carpenter, and Michael Tomasello. 2005. One-year-olds comprehend the communicative intentions behind gestures in a hiding game. Developmental Science 8: 492–499.
Benson, Jeannette E., and Mark A. Sabbagh. 2005. Theory of mind and executive functioning: a developmental neuropsychological approach. In The developing infant mind: integrating biology and experience, eds. Philip David Zelazo, M. Chandler, and E. Crone, 63–80. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Bloom, Lois, Matthew Rispoli, Barbara Gartner, and Jeremie Hafitz. 1989. Acquisition of complementation. Journal of Child Language 16. Cambridge University Press: 101.
Buttelmann, David, Malinda Carpenter, and Michael Tomasello. 2009a. Eighteen-month-old infants show false belief understanding in an active helping paradigm. Cognition 112. Elsevier: 337–342.
Buttelmann, David, Malinda Carpenter, and Michael Tomasello. 2009b. Eighteen-month-old infants show false belief understanding in an active helping paradigm. Cognition 112: 337–342.
Buttelmann, David, Harriet Over, Malinda Carpenter, and Michael Tomasello. 2014. Eighteen-month-olds understand false beliefs in an unexpected-contents task. Journal of experimental child psychology 119. Elsevier Inc.: 120–126.
Butterfill, Stephen, and Ian Apperly. 2013. How to construct a minimal theory of mind. Mind and Language 28: 606–637.
Call, J., and M. Tomasello. 1999. A nonverbal false belief task: the performance of children and great apes. Child Development 70: 381–395.
Carlson, Stephanie M., Louis J. Moses, and Casey Breton. 2002. How specific is the relation between executive function and theory of mind? Contributions of inhibitory control and working memory. Infant and Child Development 11: 73–92.
Carruthers, Peter. 2013. Mindreading in infancy. Mind & Language 28: 141–172.
Chandler, Michael, Anna S. Fritz, Suzanne Hala, Michael Chandler, Anna S. Fritz, and Suzanne Hala. 1989. Articles small-scale deceit : deception as a marker of theories of mind. Child Development 60: 1263–1277.
Christensen, Wayne, and John Michael. 2015. From two systems to a multi-systems architecture for mindreading. New Ideas in Psychology 40. Elsevier Ltd: 48–64.
de Villiers, Jill G., and Jennie E. Pyers. 2002. Complements to cognition : a longitudinal study of the relationship between complex syntax and false-belief-understanding. Cognitive Development 17: 1037–1060.
Devine, Rory T., and Claire Hughes. 2014. Relations between false belief understanding and executive function in early childhood: a meta-analysis. Child Development 85: 1777–1794.
Diessel, Holger, and Michael Tomasello. 2001. The acquisition of finite complement clauses in English: a corpus-based analysis. Cognitive Linguistics 12: 97–141.
Dudley, Rachel, Naho Orita, Valentine Hacquard, and Jeffrey Lidz. 2015. Three-year-olds’ understanding of know and think. In Experimental perspectives on presuppositions, ed. Florian Schwarz, 241–262. Springer.
Dunn, Judy, and Marcia Brophy. 2005. Communication, relationships, and individual differences in Children’s understanding of mind. In Why language matters for theory of mind, eds. Janet Wilde Astington, and Jodie A. Baird, 50–69. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fodor, Jerry A. 1975. The language of thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Fodor, Jerry. 1992. A theory of the child’s theory of mind. Cognition 44: 283–296.
Gallagher, Shaun, and Daniel J. Povinelli. 2012. Enactive and behavioral abstraction accounts of social understanding in chimpanzees, infants, and adults. Review of Philosophy and Psychology 3: 145–169.
Gopnik, Alison, and Janet Wilde Astington. 1988. Children’s understanding of representational change and its relation to the understanding of false belief and the appearance-reality distinction. Child Development 59: 26–37.
Gopnik, Alison, and Henry M. Wellman. 1992. Why the Child’s theory of mind really is a theory. Mind & Language 7: 145–171.
Grice, H. Paul. 1991. Studies in the way of words. Harvard University Press.
Hacquard, Valentine. 2014. Bootstrapping attitudes. Proceedings of SALT: 330–352.
Hadwin, Julie, and Josef Perner. 1991. Pleased and surprised: Children’s cognitive theory of emotion. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 9: 215–234.
Hala, Suzanne, Michael Chandler, and Anna S. Fritz. 1991. Fledgling theories of mind: deception as a marker of three-year-olds’ understanding of false belief. Child Development 62: 83–97.
Hale, Courtney Melinda, and Helen Tager-Flusberg. 2003. The influence of language on theory of mind: a training study. Developmental Science 6: 346–359.
Hansen, Mikkel B. 2010. If You Know Something, Say Something: Young Children’s Problem with False Beliefs. Frontiers in psychology 1. Frontiers: 23.
Harris, Paul L., Marc de Rosnay, and Francisco Pons. 2005. Language and Children’s understanding of mental states. Current Directions in Psychological Science 14: 69–73.
Helming, Katharina A., Brent Strickland, and Pierre Jacob. 2014. Making sense of early false-belief understanding. Trends in cognitive sciences 18. Elsevier Ltd: 167–170.
Heyes, Cecilia. 2014. False belief in infancy: a fresh look. Developmental Science: 1–13.
Hooper, Joan. 1975. On assertive predicates. Syntax and Semantics 4: 91–124.
Hughes, Claire, Rory T. Devine, Rosie Ensor, Masuo Koyasu, Ai Mizokawa, and Serena Lecce. 2014. Lost in translation? Comparing British, Japanese, and Italian Children’s theory-of-mind performance. Child Development Research 2014: 1–10.
Jacques, Sophie, and Philip David Zelazo. 2005. Language and the development of cognitive flexibility: implications for theory of mind. In Matters for theory of mind, ed. Why Language, 144–162. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Johnson, Carl Nils, and Michael P. Maratsos. 1977. Early comprehension of mental verbs: think and know. Child Development 48: 1743–1747.
Kovács, Ágnes Melinda, Erno Téglás, and Ansgar Denis Endress. 2010. The social sense: susceptibility to others’ beliefs in human infants and adults. Science 330: 1830–1834.
Leslie, Alan M., and Pamela Polizzi. 1998. Inhibitory processing in the false belief task: two conjectures. Developmental Science 1: 247–253.
Leslie, Alan M., Ori Friedman, and Tim P. German. 2004. Core mechanisms in “theory of mind”. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8: 528–533.
Leslie, Alan M., Tim P. German, and Pamela Polizzi. 2005. Belief-desire reasoning as a process of selection. Cognitive Psychology 50: 45–85.
Lewis, Shevaun. 2013. Pragmatic enrichment in language processing and development. University of Maryland.
Lewis, Shevaun, Valentine Hacquard, and Jeffrey Lidz. 2012. The semantics and pragmatics of belief reports in preschoolers. Proceedings of SALT 22: 247–267.
Li, Vivian, Brian Spitzer, and Kristina R. Olson. 2014. Preschoolers reduce inequality while favoring individuals with more. Child Development 85: 1123–1133.
Liszkowski, Ulf, Malinda Carpenter, and Michael Tomasello. 2007. Pointing out new news, old news, and absent referents at 12 months of age. Developmental Science 10: F1–F7.
Liu, David, Henry M. Wellman, Twila Tardif, and Mark a Sabbagh. 2008. Theory of mind development in Chinese children: a meta-analysis of false-belief understanding across cultures and languages. Developmental Psychology 44: 523–531.
Lohmann, Heidemarie, and Michael Tomasello. 2003. The role of language in the development of false belief understanding: a training study. Child Development 74: 1130–1144.
Low, Jason, and Samantha Simpson. 2012. Effects of labeling on preschoolers’ explicit false belief performance: outcomes of cognitive flexibility or inhibitory control? Child Development 83: 1072–1084.
MacWhinney, Brian. 2014. The childes project: tools for analyzing talk, volume I: transcription format and programs. Psychology Press.
Mayer, A., and B.E. Trauble. 2012. Synchrony in the onset of mental state understanding across cultures? A study among children in Samoa. International Journal of Behavioral Development 37: 21–28.
Milligan, Karen, Janet Wilde Astington, and Lisa Ain Dack. 2007. Language and theory of mind: meta-analysis of the relation between language ability and false-belief understanding. Child Development 78: 622–646.
Moll, Henrike, Sarah Kane, and Luke McGowan. 2015. Three-year-olds express suspense when an agent approaches a scene with a false belief. Developmental Science: n/a–n/a.
Montgomery, Derek E. 2005. The developmental origins of meaning for mental terms. In In Why Language Matters for Theory of Mind, 106–122. Oxford University: Press.
Moore, Chris, Dana Bryant, and David Furrow. 1989. Mental Terms and the Development of Certainty. Child Development 60. Wiley on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development: 167–171.
Onishi, Kristine H., and Renée Baillargeon. 2005. Do 15-month-old infants understand false beliefs? Science 308: 255–258.
Papafragou, Anna, Kimberly Cassidy, and Lila Gleitman. 2007. When we think about thinking : the acquisition of belief verbs. Cognition 105: 125–165.
Perner, Josef. 1991. Understanding the representational mind. Learning, development, and conceptual change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Perner, Josef. 2010. Who took the cog out of cognitive science? Mentalism in an era of anti-cognitivism. In Perception, attention, and action: International Perspectives on Psychological Science (Volume 1), ed. Peter Frensch and Ralf Schwarzer, 239–262.
Perner, Josef, Susan R. Leekam, and Heinz Wimmer. 1987. Three-year-olds’ difficulty with false belief: the case for a conceptual deficit. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 5: 125–137.
Perner, Josef, Ted Ruffman, and Susan R. Leekam. 1994. Theory of mind is contagious: you catch it from your sibs. Child Development 65: 1228–1238.
Perner, Josef, Manuel Sprung, Petra Zauner, and Hubert Haider. 2003. Want that is understood well before say that, think that, and false belief: a test of de Villiers’s linguistic determinism on German-speaking children. Child Development 74: 179–188.
Peterson, Candida C., Henry M. Wellman, and David Liu. 2005. Steps in theory-of-mind development for children with deafness or autism. Child Development 76: 502–517.
Pyers, Jennie E., and Ann Senghas. 2009. Language promotes false-belief understanding: evidence from learners of a new sign language. Psychological Science 20: 805–812.
Rakoczy, Hannes, Felix Warneken, and Michael Tomasello. 2007. “this way!”, “no! That way!”—3-year olds know that two people can have mutually incompatible desires. Cognitive Development 22: 47–68.
Rubio-Fernández, Paula, and Bart Geurts. 2013. How to pass the false-belief task before your fourth birthday. Psychological Science 24: 27–33.
Rubio-Fernández, Paula, and Bart Geurts. 2015. Don’t mention the marble! The role of attentional processes in false-belief. Review of Philosophy and Psychology: Tasks.
Ruffman, Ted, Josef Perner, Mika Naito, Lindsay Parkin, and Wendy A. Clements. 1998. Older (but not younger) siblings facilitate false belief understanding. Developmental Psychology 34: 161–174.
Ruffman, Ted, Lance Slade, and Elena Crowe. 2002. The relation between Children’s and mothers? Mental state language and theory-of-mind understanding. Child Development 73: 734–751.
Scholl, Brian J., and Alan M. Leslie. 2001. Minds, modules, and meta-analysis. Child Development 72: 696–701.
Scott, Rose M. 2014. Post hoc versus predictive accounts of children’s theory of mind: a reply to Ruffman. Developmental Review 34: 300–304.
Scott, Rose M., and Renée Baillargeon. 2014. How fresh a look? A reply to Heyes. Developmental Science 17: 660–664.
Scott, Rose M., Joshua C. Richman, and Renée Baillargeon. 2015. Infants understand deceptive intentions to implant false beliefs about identity: New evidence for early mentalistic reasoning. Cognitive Psychology 82. Elsevier Inc.: 32–56.
Searle, J. 1975. Indirect speech acts. In Syntax and semantics, eds. Peter Cole, and Jerry Morgan, 59–82. Academic Press.
Senghas, Ann, Sotaro Kita, and Asli Ozyürek. 2004. Children creating core properties of language: evidence from an emerging sign language in Nicaragua. Science 305: 1779–1782.
Senju, Atsushi, Victoria Southgate, Charlotte Snape, Mark Leonard, and Gergely Csibra. 2011. Do 18-month-olds really attribute mental states to others? A critical test. Psychological Science 22: 878–880.
Shahaeian, Ameneh, Candida C. Peterson, Virginia Slaughter, and Henry M. Wellman. 2011. Culture and the sequence of steps in theory of mind development. Developmental Psychology 47: 1239–1247.
Shatz, Marilyn, Henry M. Wellman, and Sharon Silber. 1983. The acquisition of mental verbs: a systematic investigation of the first reference to mental state. Cognition 14: 301–321.
Siegal, Michael, and Karen Beattie. 1991. Where to look first for children’s knowledge of false beliefs. Cognition 38: 1–12.
Simons, Mandy. 2007. Observations on embedding verbs, evidentiality, and presupposition. Lingua 117: 1034–1056.
Slaughter, Virginia, and Alison Gopnik. 1996. Conceptual coherence in the child’ s theory of mind: training children to understand belief. Child Development 67: 2967–2988.
Smiley, Patricia, and Janellen Huttenlocher. 1989. Young children’s acquisition of emotion concepts. In Children’s understanding of emotion, eds. C. Saami, and Paul L. Harris, 27–49. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Southgate, Victoria, and Angelina Vernetti. 2014. Belief-based action prediction in preverbal infants. Cognition 130: 1–10.
Southgate, Victoria, Coralie Chevallier, and Gergely Csibra. 2010. Seventeen-month-olds appeal to false beliefs to interpret others’ referential communication. Developmental Science 13: 907–912.
Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. 2002. Pragmatics, modularity and mind-reading. Mind and Language 17: 3–23.
Stalnaker, Robert. 1998. On the Representation of Context. Journal of Logic, Language and Information 7. Kluwer Academic Publishers: 3–19.
Steglich-Petersen, Asbjørn, and John Michael. 2015. Why desire reasoning is developmentally prior to belief reasoning. Mind & Language 30: 526–549.
Surian, Luca, and Alan M. Leslie. 1999. Competence and performance in false belief understanding: a comparison of autistic and normal 3-year-old children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 17: 141–155.
Symons, Douglas K. 2004. Mental state discourse, theory of mind, and the internalization of self–other understanding. Developmental Review 24: 159–188.
Symons, Douglas K., Kristin-Lee M. Fossum, and T.B. Kate Collins. 2006. A longitudinal study of belief and desire state discourse during mother? Child play and later false belief understanding. Social Development 15: 676–692.
Tardif, Twila, and Henry M. Wellman. 2000. Acquisition of mental state language in mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking children. Developmental Psychology 36: 25–43.
Taumoepeau, Mele, and Ted Ruffman. 2006. Mother and infant talk about mental states relates to desire language and emotion understanding 77: 465–481.
Thompson, J. Robert. 2014. Signature limits in mindreading systems. Cognitive Science 38: 1432–1455.
Tomasello, Michael, and Hannes Rakoczy. 2003. What makes human cognition unique? From individual to shared to collective intentionality. Mind and Language 18: 121–147.
Vaish, Amrisha, Malinda Carpenter, and Michael Tomasello. 2010. Young children selectively avoid helping people with harmful intentions. Child Development 81: 1661–1669.
Warneken, Felix, and Michael Tomasello. 2007. Helping and Cooperation at 14 Months of Age. Infancy 11. Taylor & Francis Group: 271–294.
Warneken, Felix, and Michael Tomasello. 2009. Varieties of altruism in children and chimpanzees. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13: 397–402.
Wellman, Henry M. 2012. Theory of mind: better methods, clearer findings, more development. European Journal of Developmental Psychology 9: 313–330.
Wellman, Henry M., and Candida C. Peterson. 2013. Deafness, thought bubbles, and theory-of-mind development. Developmental Psychology 49: 2357–2367.
Wellman, Henry M., and Jacqueline D. Woolley. 1990. From simple desires to ordinary beliefs: the early development of everyday psychology. Cognition 35: 245–275.
Wellman, Henry M., D. Cross, and J. Watson. 2001. Meta-analysis of theory-of-mind development: the truth about false belief. Child Development 72: 655–684.
Wellman, Henry M., Fang Fuxi, and Candida C. Peterson. 2011. Sequential progressions in a theory-of-mind scale: longitudinal perspectives. Child Development 82: 780–792.
Wimmer, H., and Josef Perner. 1983. Beliefs about beliefs: representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception. Cognition 13: 103–128.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
Westra, E. Pragmatic Development and the False Belief Task. Rev.Phil.Psych. 8, 235–257 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-016-0320-5
- Executive Functioning
- Deaf Child
- Complement Clause
- Invisible Displacement
- Belief Fact