Under Pressure: Processing Representational Decoupling in False-Belief Tasks

Abstract

Several studies (Onishi and Baillargeon 2005; Surian et al. 2007) demonstrated that children younger than 3 years of age, who consistently fail the standard verbal false-belief task, can anticipate others’ actions based on their attributed false beliefs. This gave rise to the so-called “Developmental Paradox”. De Bruin and Kästner (2012) recently suggested that the Developmental Paradox is best addressed in terms of the relation between coupled (online) and decoupled (offline) processes and argued that if enactivism is to be a genuine alternative to classic cognitivism, it should be able to bridge the “cognitive gap”, i.e. to provide us with a convincing account of how low-level sensorimotor practices transform into higher-order representational skills. This paper defends, against De Bruin and Kästner, an enactive response to the Developmental Paradox. I argue that 3-year olds’ failure to verbally report their false-belief understanding does not arise from stronger decoupling demands. Rather, they fail because the elicited response false-belief trials involve representational decoupling tout court and what is more, under pressure.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The VOE protocol tests whether children look longer when agents act in a manner that is inconsistent with their false beliefs and relies on the basic assumption that when an individual’s expectations are violated, she is surprised and thus she looks longer at an unexpected event rather than at an expected event.

  2. 2.

    In this famous experiment, dolls are used to act out a scenario in which Sally hides a marble in a basket and leaves the room. While she is gone, Anne enters and moves the marble to a box. Sally returns, and the children are asked, “Where will Sally look for her marble?”

  3. 3.

    Executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive faculties that underlie goal-directed behavior and cognitive control across conceptual domains such as inhibitory control – i.e. the capacity to overcome one’s putatively prepotent tendencies to simply say what is true and known – working memory, attention and error monitoring, etc.

  4. 4.

    One anonymous referee pointed out that De Bruin & Kästner could adopt another definition of cognition while keeping the fundamentals of DEC intact. However, as we shall see shortly, it is crucial for their solution to the puzzle to hold that preverbal infants are already capable of processing – via offline decoupling – internally represented information. REC challenges this claim and argues that situating the decoupling processing earlier in development does not help us to bridge the cognitive gap.

  5. 5.

    Importantly, the Dynamical Systems Theory can also provide nonrepresentational explanations of internal brain processes (see Freeman 1975; Chemero 2009). Note also that Occam’s razor may apply here: if a given phenomenon can be explained without the need of adding an extra ingredient – i.e. representations – one should adopt the most parsimonious option.

  6. 6.

    The same findings have been replicated with Korean children (Oh and Lewis 2008). Moreover, developmental cognitive neuroscience studies suggest that the neural bases of mentalizing abilities are clearly dissociable from those that deal with executive functioning skills (Sabbagh et al. 2009; Saxe and Wexler 2005; Sommer et al. 2007).

  7. 7.

    Note that this is a hybrid form of metarepresentation – the drawing being “external” and not a mental representation. Of course, one interesting question is whether hybrid metarepresentation is the same sort of thing as purely mental metarepresentation. However, this need not concern us here. The important point is that metarepresentation1 is cognitively demanding and humans are unique in their capacity to form this type of metarepresentations.

  8. 8.

    Explicit representations are available to one’s explicit awareness, whereas sub-personal or implicit representations are processed without one’s explicit awareness.

  9. 9.

    I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer who pressed clarification on this paragraph.

  10. 10.

    A recent study (Rubio-Fernández 2013) illustrated that perspective tracking is a continuous process that can be easily disrupted in adults by a subtle visual manipulation in both indirect and direct false-belief tasks. I am grateful to the anonymous referee who directed me to this reference.

  11. 11.

    Social perspective-taking is a set of manifold abilities of infants which helps them to establish reference against the background of prior social interactions.

  12. 12.

    For example, Sommerville et al. (2005) demonstrated that 3-month olds focus on the relation between an agent and her goal if they reached for (and not merely looked at) a toy before observing another actor grasping it. Also 10-month olds who received active training in pulling a cane to retrieve a toy subsequently registered another person’s cane-pulling action as goal-directed behavior, while infants who underwent mere observational training were unable to do this. Importantly, goal-relatedness is differently perceived by infants in social versus physical event configurations (Woodward et al. 2001).

  13. 13.

    I am indebted to comments from an anonymous referee for pressing the clarification in this paragraph.

  14. 14.

    Note that the verbal expression of (P) might be absent altogether, as in the “helping paradigm” trials (Buttelman et al. 2009). This corroborates the idea that the disrupting ingredient in ERT is not the mere verbal component, but the verbally interactive one.

  15. 15.

    A recent study (Rubio-Fernández and Geurts 2013) illustrates that nonverbal versions of the ERT allow infants to keep track of a protagonist’s perspective over a course of events, whereas verbal designs tend to disrupt the perspective tracking process.

  16. 16.

    For example, Keysar et al. (2003) have shown that adults’ first rapid guesses about the meaning of words (using eye-tracking detecting measures) are based more on empirical generalizations (e.g. how a speaker has used a word in the past) rather than on complicated inferences about speakers’ beliefs and intentions. This does not imply that adults are unable to make such sophisticated inferences. However, these operations take time.

  17. 17.

    I am grateful to the anonymous referee who pressed clarification on this point.

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Acknowledgments

I thank Dan Hutto, Julian Kiverstein, Erik Myin, Uwe Peters, the editor and three anonymous referees for very helpful comments and criticisms.

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Correspondence to Anna Ciaunica.

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Ciaunica, A. Under Pressure: Processing Representational Decoupling in False-Belief Tasks. Rev.Phil.Psych. 5, 527–542 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-014-0195-2

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Keywords

  • Executive Functioning
  • Executive Functioning Skill
  • Order Belief
  • Online Social Interaction
  • Preverbal Infant