Children’s Application of Theory of Mind in Reasoning and Language

Abstract

Many social situations require a mental model of the knowledge, beliefs, goals, and intentions of others: a Theory of Mind (ToM). If a person can reason about other people’s beliefs about his own beliefs or intentions, he is demonstrating second-order ToM reasoning. A standard task to test second-order ToM reasoning is the second-order false belief task. A different approach to investigating ToM reasoning is through its application in a strategic game. Another task that is believed to involve the application of second-order ToM is the comprehension of sentences that the hearer can only understand by considering the speaker’s alternatives. In this study we tested 40 children between 8 and 10 years old and 27 adult controls on (adaptations of) the three tasks mentioned above: the false belief task, a strategic game, and a sentence comprehension task. The results show interesting differences between adults and children, between the three tasks, and between this study and previous research.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the children and staff of the St. Jorisschool in Heumen and the Christelijke Basisschool De Bron in Marum for their cooperation. Pauline Vrieling and Daniëlle Koks were so kind as to allow us to use their materials for our language experiment. We also thank the participants of the workshop “Formal models for real people” and two anonymous reviewers of this journal for their valuable suggestions and comments. Rineke Verbrugge gratefully acknowledges the NIAS (Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences) for awarding her a fellowship in the framework of the project ‘Games, Action, and Social Software’. Furthermore, we gratefully acknowledge the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, NWO (Grants No. 051-04-120 and 400-05-710 for Verbrugge, Grant No. 051-02-070 for Krämer and Hendriks, and Grants no. 277-70-005 and 015-001-103 for Hendriks).

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Correspondence to Liesbeth Flobbe.

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Open Access This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0), which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.

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Flobbe, L., Verbrugge, R., Hendriks, P. et al. Children’s Application of Theory of Mind in Reasoning and Language. J of Log Lang and Inf 17, 417–442 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10849-008-9064-7

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Keywords

  • False belief
  • Second-order reasoning
  • Sentence comprehension
  • Strategic game
  • Theory of Mind