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Talking about Minds: Social Experience, Pragmatic Development, and the False Belief Task

Evan Westra, University of Maryland

[PDF of Evan Westra’s paper]

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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 their developing executive abilities. However, this sort of account cannot explain a wide range of evidence that shows that social and linguistic factors also affect when children pass this task. In this paper, I present a nativist proposal about theory of mind development that is able to accommodate these findings. Specifically, I argue that we can understand the shift in children’s performance on standard false belief tasks around four years of age partly as the result of learning about the pragmatics of belief discourse, and partly due to the maturation of their response-conflict inhibition capacity. Additionally, the pragmatic development account has the resources to account for other phenomena in the theory of mind development literature, including the developmental priority of desire reasoning over belief reasoning.

1. Introduction

Since it became a topic of empirical research, the study of children’s theory of mind – their understanding of the underlying psychological nature of behavior – has been dominated by the discovery that younger children systematically fail false belief tasks, and start to succeed sometime after their fourth birthdays (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001; Wimmer & Perner, 1983). The debate regarding the interpretation of this discovery has divided philosophers and psychologists along nativist and empiricist lines. Empiricists have claimed that the shift in performance on false belief tasks around children’s fourth year signaled their acquisition of a genuinely meta-representational concept of belief (Gopnik & Wellman, 1992; Perner, 1991). Nativists argued that younger children’s failures reflected a performance error related to children’s underdeveloped executive and attentional resources and the processing demands inherent to the task, rather than a fundamental lack of competence with the concept of belief (Fodor, 1992; Leslie, Friedman, & German, 2004).

In the two decades after the false belief task was first introduced as a measure of theory of mind development, both the empiricist and nativist camps remained firmly entrenched (see, for example, Scholl & Leslie’s (2001) response to Wellman et al. (2001)). More recently, new methods for studying false belief understanding in preverbal infants appear to have vindicated the nativist position (Baillargeon, Scott, & He, 2010; Barrett et al., 2013; D. Buttelmann, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2009; D. Buttelmann, Over, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2014; F. Buttelmann, Suhrke, & Buttelmann, 2015; Kovács, Téglás, & Endress, 2010; Senju, Southgate, Snape, Leonard, & Csibra, 2011; Southgate & Vernetti, 2014). These studies seem to show that while younger children do systematically fail false belief tasks that attempt to elicit explicit, communicative responses, infants as young as 6 months of age appear to understand false beliefs in tasks where success is measured by their spontaneous reactions to behavior, either with anticipatory looking, violation-of-expectation, active helping, or EEG paradigms. Interpreting these findings has created a great deal of controversy, with a number of authors arguing that implicit measures do not demonstrate genuine meta-representational abilities (Butterfill & Apperly, 2013; Gallagher & Povinelli, 2012; Heyes, 2014; Perner, 2010). I will not be addressing these arguments in this paper, however. In what follows, I will be taking a mentalistic interpretation of these findings for granted, so that I may engage with other, as yet unresolved issues within prominent nativist accounts of theory of mind development.[1]

I argue that even if they are right about the new infancy data, nativist accounts of children’s understanding of mental states still have room for improvement when it comes to explaining various individual differences in children’s performance on elicited response, verbal false belief tasks (hereafter FBTs). Specifically, accounts that emphasize the on-line demands that these tasks place on children’s executive resources cannot explain why certain forms of social experience appear to influence when young children start to succeed on FBTs. Empiricists about theory of mind typically cite such findings as evidence against nativism; the goal of this paper is to show how they are in fact consistent with an innate basis for theory of mind. In so doing, I seek to emphasize an element of the nativist research program that has not been adequately appreciated by non-nativists (nor, perhaps, sufficiently emphasized by nativists themselves): contemporary nativist approaches to the mind are meant as explanations for how individual learning takes place; they do not deny that individuals ever learn at all, or that innate knowledge is never enriched (pace Fodor (1975)). In the case of theory of mind, nativist interpretations of early competence ought to be consistent with a role for individual experience. It’s therefore incumbent upon the nativist about theory of mind to show how various types of experience can lead to individual differences in theory of mind development.

My proposal, which I’ll call the pragmatic development account, is that while young children are capable of representing beliefs early on in development, they are not yet very good at understanding when facts about belief are relevant to conversation. In spite of the fact that they constantly attribute beliefs, desires, goals and intentions to other agents, understanding when these pre-linguistic concepts are implicated in conversation is not just a matter of acquiring the right vocabulary. Young children do not initially expect people’s beliefs to be a topic for conversation – they have to learn this through experience with the pragmatics of belief discourse – that is, during social interactions in which facts about mental states are implicated in conversation. Through these repeated interactions, children learn to adjust their prior expectations about the relevance of doxastic facts when interpreting particular speech acts. As a result, different levels of experience with belief discourse can affect how children interpret questions like the ones they must answer in FBTs.

The pragmatic development account is not wholly new. Siegal and Beattie (1991) proposed a Gricean account of younger children’s habitual failure on FBTs. They argued that three-year-olds are typically too inexperienced to pick up on experimenters’ conversational implicatures during the FBT; as a result, they fail to grasp the relevance of mentalistic factors to the experimenters’ questions, opting instead for a more familiar, world-oriented interpretation. Thus, when children hear “Where will Sally look for her marble?” they interpret it as, “Where will Sally have to look for the marble in order to find it?” rather than “Where will Sally look for her marble first?” Siegal and Beattie supported this interpretation by showing that three year olds tended to pass a modified version of the FBT in which they were asked the latter question, even though they would still fail when asked the first. Later, Surian and Leslie (1999) both replicated Siegal and Beattie’s findings and expanded upon them by showing that a similar manipulation failed to improve the performance of a control group of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (a population widely believed to suffer from a chronic theory of mind deficit) ). More recently, Helming and colleagues have proposed that children’s propensity to be helpful leads them to misinterpret the experimenter query during the FBT (Helming, Strickland, & Jacob, 2014). Lewis et al. (2012) and Dudley et al. (2014) also propose a version of the pragmatic development account to explain the development of children’s understanding of the verbs ‘think’ and ‘know;’ their research will be discussed in more detail below. In this paper, I argue that this type of account can actually explain a wide range of individual differences in FBT performance as well as other key developmental findings in the theory of mind literature. I also emphasize how consideration of pragmatic, social factors in fact complements standard nativist accounts of children’s performance on FBTs.

2. A challenge for existing nativist accounts

Many of the prominent nativist accounts of theory of mind development have focused on the processing load that the FBT places on younger children’s developing executive functioning. Baillargeon and her colleagues’s response account, for instance, posits that younger children are unable to cope with the demands of simultaneously attributing a false belief, selecting a response to the experimenter’s question, and inhibiting a prepotent tendency to answer the experimenter’s question with her own knowledge, perhaps due to still immature connections between mindreading and executive regions of the brain (Baillargeon et al., 2010). Along similar lines, Leslie and colleagues have argued that success on FBTs is modulated by the development of a domain general selection processor responsible for inhibiting the mindreading system’s tendency to attribute the subject’s own beliefs to others by default (Leslie, German, & Polizzi, 2005; Leslie & Polizzi, 1998).Carruthers (2013) also holds a “processing load” view, but emphasizes that all three components of FBTs – attributing a false belief, interpreting the experimenter’s question, and generating a response that will communicate the appropriate information to the experimenter – involve mindreading (see also Sperber & Wilson, 2002). According to this triple mindreading account, executing each of these tasks simultaneously places heavy demands on both processing resources internal to the mindreading system and general executive resources, both of which may be insufficiently developed in younger children, which explains why younger children fail the FBT while still possessing the concept of belief.

All of these accounts have been bolstered by findings that suggest that when the executive demands of the FBT are reduced, children start to pass before their fourth birthday (Rubio-Fernández & Geurts, 2013), as by the finding that explicit false belief queries disrupt automatic perspective tracking even in adults (Rubio-Fernández, 2013; Schneider, Lam, Bayliss, & Dux, 2012). They also cohere well with a wide range of findings showing that advanced executive capabilities are predictive of earlier success on the FBT (for a review and meta-analysis, see Devine & Hughes, 2014). Specifically, early success on the FBT is predicted by the development of the component of executive functioning that is responsible for children’s performance on response-control inhibition tasks, which require children to simultaneously inhibit dominant responses while selecting competing, subdominant ones, which is consistent with all three of the accounts described above (Benson & Sabbagh, 2005; Carlson, Moses, & Breton, 2002).

These accounts are all correct in pointing out that executive factors play an important role in success on FBTs; in fact, I will argue that executive factors actually play an additional role in theory of mind development beyond what is described above. However, any account that appeals solely to the maturation of children’s executive abilities as an explanation of how they come to pass the FBT is ultimately underequipped when it comes to explaining the various experience-related factors that influence explicit false belief performance. For instance, it’s been shown that the extent to which a child’s mother talks about mental states predicts how early that child will begin to succeed on FBTs (Ruffman, Slade, & Crowe, 2002; Symons, Fossum, & Collins, 2006; Symons, 2004). Beyond maternal interactions, children with older siblings also appear to have an advantage on the FBT (Perner, Ruffman, & Leekam, 1994; Ruffman, Perner, Naito, Parkin, & Clements, 1998). Further, interventions that train children on various aspects of mental state discourse have tended to improve children’s performance on FBTs (Hale & Tager-Flusberg, 2003; Lohmann & Tomasello, 2003; Slaughter & Gopnik, 1996; Wellman, 2012).

Exposure to language in general also has dramatic effects on when children are able to pass the FBT. Deaf children born to hearing parents who are exposed to sign-language late in life are significantly delayed on explicit false belief tasks when compared to both hearing children and deaf children born to deaf parents (whose FBT performance is comparable to that of hearing children) (Peterson, Wellman, & Liu, 2005; Wellman, Fuxi, & Peterson, 2011). Notably, this delay is not the result of any sort of congenital neurological abnormality (as is the case with children on the autism spectrum) but is instead due to purely environmental factors. Nevertheless, late-signing deaf children still reliably display the same developmental progression through various types of theory of mind problems as typically developing children (e.g. succeeding on problems involving diverse desires before problems involving false beliefs; see Section 5). However, late-signing deaf children are able to succeed earlier on FBTs after they are exposed to theory of mind-based interventions using “thought bubbles” that draw attention to individuals’ beliefs (Wellman & Peterson, 2013).

Some of the most striking evidence for the importance of experiential factors in theory of mind development comes from a natural experiment that took place in Nicaragua during the last few decades of the 20th century. In 1977, an expanded elementary school for special needs children was opened in the city of Managua. Here, for the first time, deaf children in Nicaragua came into extended contact with one another. Although their education was conducted in Spanish, amongst themselves the students began to develop their own novel system of gestural communication, an amalgamation of the children’s various idiosyncratic home-sign gestures. This system of gestural communication was expanded as older students passed it on to new ones, and rapidly developed into a full-fledged sign language known today as Nicaraguan Sign Language, or NSL (Senghas, Kita, & Ozyürek, 2004). Importantly, the version of NSL acquired by its earliest speakers was less complex than the one acquired by later speakers, and completely lacking in mental state vocabulary (Pyers & Senghas, 2009). In a longitudinal study comparing the performance of earlier “first cohort” and later “second cohort” speakers of NSL, Pyers and Senghas found that first cohort speakers systematically failed a non-verbal elicited-response version of the FBT, while second cohort speakers were generally successful. In a follow-up several years later, the performance of the first cohort speakers on the FBT had significantly improved. Pyers and Senghas attributed this improvement to an intermingling between first and second cohort speakers of NSL, leading the first cohort speakers to acquire a greater facility with mental state discourse. Note that one could not plausibly attribute the change in the first cohort speakers’ performance on the FBT to a development in executive abilities (as the nativist might for the parallel change in performance in 3-4 year olds), as these subjects were adults at the time of the first test, and likely possessed fully mature executive resources. Indeed, both the difference between first and second cohort NSL speakers and the change in first cohort speakers’ performance appear to be the result of social experiences specifically related to their acquisition of mental state vocabulary.

Explanations of FBT performance that appeal solely to the on-line demands that the task places on executive resources do not tell us much about why these kinds of experiences affect when an individual ultimately overcomes those demands. Even if important maturational changes to children’s executive resources do occur between the ages of three and four, and individual differences in executive functioning do correlate with individual differences on the FBT, it’s not obvious how these internal cognitive developments could explain why an individual’s social experiences also seem to matter for their performance on the FBT. This suggests that, in addition to executive factors, a child’s social environment makes an independent contribution to her performance on the FBT.

3. The pragmatic challenges of belief discourse

A number of empiricist accounts have argued that the acquisition of language plays an important, perhaps necessary role in the development of theory of mind, but there is wide disagreement about which aspects of language are relevant. Various authors have proposed a crucial role for complementation syntax (de Villiers & Pyers, 2002), mental state vocabulary (Montgomery, 2005), and the social experience that comes with linguistic interactions (Dunn & Brophy, 2005; Harris, de Rosnay, & Pons, 2005; Tomasello & Rakoczy, 2003); however, in a recent meta-analysis of the theory of mind and language literature, Milligan, Astington, and Dack (2007) were unable to identify a special role for any single aspect of language independent of general language ability. In all, after controlling for age, they determined that linguistic factors accounted for roughly 10% of the variance in theory of mind abilities (for comparison: in their meta-analysis, Devine and Hughes (2014) determined that, after controlling for age and verbal ability, executive functioning and false belief understanding had approximately 8% shared variance). However, their meta-analysis did not evaluate the impact of studies concerning the effects of social experience on theory of mind development, such as the training studies of Hale and Tager-Flusberg (2006) and Lohmann and Tomasello (2003) mentioned above. This leaves open the possibility that the social experience afforded by language makes an independent contribution to theory of mind development as measured by the FBT. In particular, different levels of experience with mental state discourse appear to have noticeable effects on FBT performance.

Empiricist accounts that emphasize social factors typically claim that such experiences are conducive to the construction of new mental state concepts. As children observe and engage in social interactions, according to this approach, they begin to detect progressively higher-order relational patterns in behavior. Gradually, they note the correlations between these observed regularities and the way people use words that refer to mental states. Together, these relational patterns and mentalistic vocabulary items bootstrap children into a genuinely representational theory of mind (Low & Simpson, 2012; San Juan & Astington, 2012). But from a nativist perspective, this kind of interpretation will not do, since by hypothesis the relevant concepts are already present. How then is the nativist to interpret this sort of evidence?

3.1. References to beliefs in the explanation and description of behavior

To answer this question, we must first be very clear about the basic problem that contemporary versions of theory of mind nativism are meant to solve, namely, explaining how explaining how even very young infants’ spontaneous expectations about behavior seem to be sensitive to the mental states of others. Nativists posit that they are able to do this because they possess innately channeled inference mechanisms that take observable behaviors as inputs and generate mental state attributions as outputs. But this account only explains how young children come to possess mental state concepts. Learning to apply these concepts in an adult-like manner in linguistic interactions is another story. A novice speaker of a language, even one who is able to represent the mental states of others, may nevertheless demonstrate non-adult-like performance on tasks that require her to interpret other speakers’ utterances as being about mental states. After all, the nativist’s hypothesis is about where our conceptual understanding of mental states comes from, not how we learn to talk about them. The nativist about mindreading is silent when it comes to explaining how we learn to participate in mental state discourse – which, it turns out, is surprisingly tricky for the novice speaker. This especially evident in the development of young children’s use of the verb ‘think’, which, I’ll argue, reflects special difficulty with belief discourse in general. Specifically, I claim that even if children do possess the concept of belief, pragmatic challenges with belief discourse will lead children to initially assign a low probability to interpretations of speech acts that implicate doxastic facts. In other words, younger children do not expect beliefs to be a topic of conversation.

To see why doxastic facts pose a particular difficulty for the novice speaker, consider first the asymmetrical roles that beliefs and desires play in ordinary folk psychological explanation (Rakoczy, Warneken, & Tomasello, 2007). Suppose, for instance, that we observe Sally walk over to the cookie jar and open the lid. When asked why Sally opened the lid to the cookie jar, a natural and perfectly informative response would be, “Because she wanted a cookie.” Note that this response makes no mention of Sally’s beliefs – just her desires. Now, consider an alternative response: “Because she wanted a cookie, and she believed that there would be cookies inside the jar when she opened it.” This explanation, while accurate, is a bit odd. To mention Sally’s belief in this context seems to provide too much information, a violation of Grice’s Maxim of Quantity (Grice, 1991). Sally’s belief about the cookie jar is so obvious that it is simply not worth mentioning. This is because when we give explanations of this type, we tend to presuppose that facts about Sally’s beliefs are a part of the conversational common ground. Even when this is not in fact the case, and the listener actually does not take facts about Sally’s beliefs to be in the common ground, the speaker’s act of only referring to Sally’s desires is itself evidence that some fact about Sally’s beliefs has been presupposed. It is then incumbent on the listener to supply that fact herself in order to render the explanation coherent.[2] Thus, overt reference to beliefs is notably absent from even this very simple instance of a folk psychological explanation; in its place, we find a subtle practice that relies upon presupposition and pragmatic inference.

Our descriptions of behavior also seem to frequently omit reference to beliefs. In an elegant series of experiments, Papafragou et al. (2007) presented both adults and children with short scenes, which the subjects were then asked to describe. In their control conditions, Papafragou and colleagues found that both adults and children tended to make very few references to the actors’ beliefs when describing the scenes, opting instead to refer to agents’ goals, or simply to their overt physical behaviors. However, the experimenters hypothesized that both children and adults would be more likely to describe a scene in terms of actors’ beliefs when they are provided with additional cues that make doxastic interpretations more salient. Specifically, the authors predicted that the presence of syntactic cues from sentences with clausal complement structure (e.g. “Sally believes THAT the marble is in the box,”) or situational cues in which a character acts on a false belief would prompt subjects to use more belief words. They presented both adults and children between the ages of three and five with silent scenarios showing actors engaged in various activities. Some of these scenarios showed actors performing simple actions, while others showed the actors acting on false beliefs (e.g. absent-mindedly drinking from a flower vase that had been placed where their water glass was while they were not looking). In some cases, these scenes were accompanied with nonsense sentences containing either a clausal complement structure introduced by ‘that’ (e.g. “Vanissa LODS that she ziptorks the siltap”), a transitive structure with a direct object (“Vanissa VAMS the torp”), or an intransitive structure (“Vanissa TROMS”). Across their experiments, they found that both the false belief scenario and the clausal complement cue substantially increased both adults’ and children’s references to beliefs when describing what they saw. This effect was strongest when both cues were co-occurring; when such cues were absent, they tended to describe the scene using non-doxastic vocabulary.

These results show two things: first, that we do not spontaneously refer to beliefs in our behavioral descriptions, and second, that talk of beliefs seems more likely when some feature of the situation has heighted the saliency of belief facts. Thus, in description, as with explanation, doxastic facts do not seem to bear mentioning under ordinary circumstances. Yet representations of belief facts still appear to be available, as overt references to them can be prompted by the presence of a syntactic cue. The fact that false belief scenarios do prompt references to beliefs is also telling, because it suggests that it is only in somewhat unusual circumstances that it becomes important for speakers to draw attention to beliefs. This suggests that while we do represent the beliefs of others, it is only in special circumstances that these representations get overtly expressed in conversation.

If this asymmetry in the role of beliefs in the explanation and description of behavior were in fact pervasive in the novice speaker’s linguistic input, then we would expect a corresponding asymmetry in the frequency of overt references made to beliefs and desires in child-directed speech. There is some indication that this is in fact the case: according to the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES) database, by age 4, children have heard overt mentions of the verb ‘think’ an average of 611, 220 times, and ‘want’ 1.3 million times (MacWhinney, 2014).[3] We see something similar in a study conducted by Tamoepeau and Ruffman, in which mothers were made to tell a story to their children from a book containing only images: references to desires were roughly twice as frequent as references to beliefs (Taumoepeau & Ruffman, 2006). These findings provide support for the claim that we frequently omit references to beliefs in our explanations and descriptions of behavior. They also highlight a more basic fact, namely that belief input is relatively sparse for a novice speaker, at least when compared to desire input.[4]

In both our explanations and our descriptions of behavior, then, facts about belief are often left implicit. For adults, this pragmatic dimension of belief discourse is barely noticeable, and engaging in these discursive practices is positively effortless. But for a child – even one who is possesses the concept of belief – this might make belief discourse rather difficult. Not only must the child be able to grasp the role of beliefs in generating behavior, but she must also know that common knowledge of these facts is often being presupposed during conversation. Mere possession of the belief concept alone would not explain how a child comes to be proficient in this practice. She must, somehow, learn this pragmatics of belief discourse from her linguistic input. But until she has learned this, she will only notice that talk of beliefs is comparatively rare. For the child, it will seem as though beliefs are not the sort of thing that people are often interested in talking about.

3.2. The pragmatics of ‘thinks’

Another factor adding to difficulties associated with belief discourse is that the verb that we most often use to express the belief concept, ‘think,’ is not always used to attribute beliefs. Often, ‘think’ is used in indirect speech acts as a way of proffering a complement clause that the speaker takes to be true. To illustrate, consider the following exchange:

Agnes: When does the game start?

Roberta: I think that it starts around 7pm.

Interpreted literally, Roberta has responded to Agnes’ question by self-attributing a belief about the game. But this interpretation would be bizarre: facts about Roberta’s mental states are orthogonal to the Question Under Discussion, and Roberta’s referring to them would seem to violate the maxim of quantity by bringing up irrelevant information. Of course, we do not interpret Roberta’s utterance in this manner because it is clear that the primary illocutionary act being performed is not, in fact, about Roberta’s mental states, but rather about the game itself, just like 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). In the exchange above, Roberta is using ‘think’ as a way of indirectly endorsing the truth of the complement clause, namely, that the game starts at 7pm. Used in this manner, sentences of the form “S thinks that P” become pragmatically enriched so that they imply that the speaker takes its complement takes P to be true; in contrast, literal, attributive uses of “S thinks that P” are neutral with respect to the truth of P.[5] Thus, utterances containing ‘think’ often require an additional inference about speaker meaning to determine whether it is being used indirectly or attributively, which in turn impacts whether or not the complement clause is being asserted as true (Simons, 2007). What’s worse, the indirect uses of ‘think’ appear to be far more common than its attributive use: corpus analyses of child-directed speech reveal that the overwhelming majority of adults’ uses of think are of the indirect variety; correspondingly, most of younger children’s early uses of ‘think’ tend to be indirect and first-personal in nature, rather than genuine belief ascriptions (Bloom, Rispoli, Gartner, & Hafitz, 1989; Diessel & Tomasello, 2001; Shatz, Wellman, & Silber, 1983).

The combination of the infrequency with which we overtly refer to beliefs in explanation and description and the pragmatic noisiness of ‘think’ makes interpreting utterances containing ‘think’ quite challenging for the novice speaker. It is therefore unsurprising that children below the age of four also seem to show non-adult-like comprehension of ‘think,’ and often seem to treat it as equivalent to ‘know’ (Johnson & Maratsos, 1977; Moore, Bryant, & Furrow, 1989). Multiple authors have interpreted younger children’s difficulties with epistemic verbs as evidence of an underlying conceptual deficit: younger children make mistakes with ‘think’ and ‘know’ because they lack the concepts those words express (Perner, Sprung, Zauner, & Haider, 2003; Tardif & Wellman, 2000). However, given that children this age and younger do demonstrate an understanding of beliefs in spontaneous FBTs, Dudley et al. (2014) and Lewis et al. (2012) have proposed that children’s difficulty with these verbs may be due to pragmatic rather than conceptual or semantic factors (see also Lewis, 2013). According to this hypothesis, three-year-olds do in fact have the appropriate semantics for ‘think,’ but they tend to make incorrect inferences about the intentions behind utterances in which they occur, treating literal uses of ‘think’ verbs as indirect by default. This ‘pragmatic development hypothesis’ predicts that experimental manipulations that make attributive interpretations of utterances containing ‘think’ more salient should lead to more adult-like performance on comprehension tasks.

To test this prediction, Lewis et al. (2012) presented a sample of four-year olds with vignettes in which cartoon characters played a game of hide-and-seek. After watching one or more characters hide, participants first interacted with a puppet that would ascribe beliefs to the seeker (e.g. “Dora thinks Swiper is behind the toy box,”) and then were asked by the experimenter whether or not what the puppet said was correct. In their first experiment, participants tended to give incorrect truth-value judgments when the puppet accurately ascribed false beliefs to the seeker. However, in their next experiment, a second seeker with conflicting beliefs about the location of the hider was added to the vignette. In this experiment, participants’ truth-value judgments about the puppet’s belief ascriptions improved across all conditions. To explain this improvement, the authors suggest that children in the 1-seeker condition failed because they defaulted to an indirect interpretation of the puppet’s use of ‘think’, which led them to infer that the puppet was in fact proffering a false statement. By introducing another conflicting perspective to the scenario, the authors were able to highlight the relevance of the first seeker’s beliefs in the child’s conversation with the experimenter, which led the children to interpret the puppet as using ‘think’ attributively and give the correct answer. This suggests that the subjects’ initial responses were not based on a failure to represent the character’s beliefs, but rather a failure to correctly interpret the speaker meaning behind the original belief ascription made by the puppet.

Notably, standard nativist accounts of children’s theory of mind development that stress the development of executive functioning would not have predicted this result. Such an account would have predicted that the addition of the second seeker would have made the task harder, since adding another perspective to the situation would have given the subjects yet another concurrent mindreading task and increased the executive burden of the task. The fact that adding the second seeker did not have this effect is further evidence that demands on executive functioning do not fully explain children’s systematic failures on the FBT.

Building on the work of Lewis and colleagues, Dudley et al. (2014) were able to demonstrate adult-like comprehension of ‘think’ in three-year-olds by making the differing presuppositions of the verbs ‘think’ and ‘know’ salient in an interactive game. In this study, children’s task was to guess the location of a toy hidden in one of two boxes. Children received clues in the form of attitude reports about a “shy” puppet that would whisper its beliefs about the location of the toy into the experimenter’s ear. To succeed on these tasks, children had to understand that “S thinks that P,” “S knows that P,” “S doesn’t think that P,” and “S doesn’t know that P” each provide different degrees of evidence about the truth or falsity of P; in other words, in order to use the clues provided to them, participants needed an adult-like semantics for ‘think’ and ‘know.’ Dudley and colleagues found that three-year olds successfully interpreted clues involving ‘think,’ suggesting they possessed a mature semantic understanding of the verb that they were able to draw on when it was relevant to their immediate goal of finding the toy. Thus, it appears that children are capable of comprehending at least some epistemic state verbs in an adult-like manner before their fourth birthday, provided that parenthetical interpretations have been excluded by contextual and linguistic factors.

3.3. Belief discourse and the FBT

One thing that the Dudley et al. (2014) and Lewis et al. (2012) studies tell us is that we should expect younger children to have difficulties on FBTs that ask them what a particular agent thinks (e.g. Jacques & Zelazo, 2005; Low & Simpson, 2012): in those tasks, children are likely defaulting to an indirect interpretation of the verb, rather than an attributive one. However, many standard FBTs ask a child where a particular character will look (e.g. Wimmer & Perner, 1983), and it’s less obvious how the above results shed light on those tasks. But taken together with what we know about the nature of the input that children get for doxastic discourse – the pragmatic subtlety of folk psychological explanation and description, the asymmetry of references to beliefs versus desires, the prevalence of indirect uses of ‘think’ – a broader pattern emerges: belief discourse is both sparse and pragmatically complex. With input like this, children have no good reason, all else being equal, to expect that doxastic facts will be relevant to the interpretation of any given speech act. Beliefs, for these children, are entities that are rarely referred to, either explicitly or implicitly. For them, doxastic interpretations of speech will, in general, be much less salient than non-doxastic ones. If this is right, then we should find that conversational tasks that require young children to consider facts about beliefs pose general interpretive challenges. Further, we should find that younger children’s performance on such tasks should vary as a function of their sensitivity to aspects of context that render doxastic facts more conversationally salient.

What are these aspects of context? The Lewis et al. (2012) study showed that the presence of a contrasting belief can heighten the relevance of belief facts and thus trigger a doxastic interpretation. Dudley et al. (2014) showed that doxastic interpretation can be elicited when a child’s overriding goals make those facts worth paying attention to. In these cases, features of the interactive context serve to highlight belief facts. In the FBT literature, other manipulations of contextual factors seem to have similar effects. If an FBT includes a deliberate deception, younger children are more likely to pass it (Chandler et al., 1989; Hala, Chandler, & Fritz, 1991; Wellman et al., 2001); this may be because even young children show a heightened vigilance for deception as a moral transgression, which in turn heightens the salience of the doxastic fact in question (Mascaro & Sperber, 2009). Asking a child where an agent will look first also leads to improved performance (Siegal & Beattie, 1991; Surian & Leslie, 1999); perhaps this added specificity simply restricts the range of plausible interpretations, forcing the child to consider the doxastic one more carefully. Asking a child to play out a character’s actions using a toy rather than directly querying them about the character’s actions also helps, perhaps because the play-acting activity naturally leads the child to attend closely to the character’s beliefs (Rubio-Fernández & Geurts, 2013). All of these manipulations, whether they involve the verb ‘think’ or not, seem to change the features of the situation in a way that makes children regard doxastic facts as more salient, leading them to demonstrate of their knowledge of the character’s beliefs.

This gives an important insight into how a younger child might interpret an experimenter’s queries during a standard FBT. As the experimenter asks, “Where will Sally look for her marble?” the child must make a pragmatic inference about what the experimenter really wants to know in order to determine the Question Under Discussion. What she infers will depend upon which information she expects to be relevant in that context. If the child’s attention is drawn to the right information, she may infer that answering the Question Under Discussion requires that she appeal to facts about the agent’s beliefs; however, if the child fails to attend to this information, then it would not be at all obvious to her that in order to tell the experimenter what he wants to know, she must consider facts about the psychology of the agent. It could be that this possibility does not even occur to the child; if it does, it may still lose out to other contextual factors that make the actual location of the marble seem more relevant.

How then do children actually interpret the Question Under Discussion in these cases? The literature presents a few possibilities. Siegal and Beattie (1991) suggest that children may interpret the experimenter query as “Where will Sally find the ball?”, given that obtaining the ball is Sally’s ultimate goal in the FBT scenario, and children treat the impending resolution of this goal to be highly salient. Helming and colleauges (2014) offer a slightly different explanation: altruistically concerned that Sally should fulfill her goal, children in the FBT assume that the experimenter is in fact indirectly soliciting their assistance; they thus interpret “Where will Sally look for her ball?” as “Let’s help Sally find her ball,” and subsequently respond by giving the most helpful answer possible. The latter suggestion gains plausibility from a large literature on children’s spontaneous tendency to be helpful (Warneken & Tomasello, 2007, 2009). However, both suggestions may be compatible if children’s cooperative tendencies make the goals of others highly salient, which is consistent with an expansive literature on children’s capacity for “shared intentionality” (Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne, & Moll, 2005). These possibilities highlight the fact that the correct interpretation of the Question Under Discussion must compete with one or more alternatives; given that the conversational relevance of belief facts would not be obvious for a young child, we have good reason to believe that the correct interpretation would not be the default. Thus, the string of words uttered by the experimenter underdetermines the child’s judgment about how to respond. In order for the child to answer correctly, she needs to be somehow learn that beliefs can be conversationally relevant, such that she can both suppress erroneous interpretations of the experimenter’s question and select the appropriate one.

At this point, the importance of social experience for understanding the relevance of belief facts becomes clear: children who have had more opportunities to observe and participate in conversations about beliefs seem to be better attuned to the conversational relevance of psychological facts. They may, for instance, gradually encounter more situations in which non-doxastic interpretations of speech acts fail to explain speakers’ behavior, forcing them to entertain alternative, doxastic interpretations. In this manner, children may come to learn that the concept of belief that they deploy to interpret the behavior of others is also regularly implicated (either explicitly or implicitly) in everyday speech, especially in contexts involving diverse beliefs (Lewis et al. 2012), testimony (Dudley et al. 2014) and false beliefs (Papafragou et al., 2007). This newly acquired knowledge prompts children to adjust their prior expectations about the potential relevance of belief-facts when drawing inferences about speaker meaning. This may in turn help them better disambiguate indirect and attributive uses of ‘think,’ and, most importantly for our current discussion, accurately interpret experimenter queries in the FBT.

This experience could be achieved via exposure to maternal “mind-minded” conversation (Ruffman et al., 2002), interactions with older siblings (Perner et al., 1994; Ruffman et al., 1998), or various forms of explicit training (Hale & Tager-Flusberg, 2003; Lohmann & Tomasello, 2003). Notably, the absence of these experiences would lead to corresponding delays on FBTs. Late-signing deaf children, for instance, are not exposed to belief discourse until primary school, and consequently they show delays in explicit false belief performance (Wellman et al., 2011); yet, when they are exposed to theory of mind-based training interventions, they rapidly improve (Wellman & Peterson, 2013). The first cohort of Nicaraguan signers did not even possess mental state vocabulary when Pyers and Senghas (2009) first tested their explicit false belief competence, which they systematically failed. Several years later, after being exposed to the mental state vocabulary of the second cohort, their performance markedly improved. According to this account, what developed in the interim was not a new set of concepts; rather, it was their sensitivity to the contextual factors that rendered beliefs conversationally salient. For the late-signing deaf-children, their general deficit in linguistic experience meant that they lacked crucial experience with belief discourse; Wellman and Peterson’s intervention succeeded in compensating for this deficit. For the first-cohort Nicaraguan signers, the language itself was impoverished with respect to mental state terms, which resulted in impoverished experience with belief discourse. These findings, which resist explanation under accounts that appeal solely to the executive demands of the FBT to explain systematic failures, are convincingly explained under the pragmatic development account. But more importantly, they point to the specific importance of experience with mental state discourse in improving children’s performance on the FBT, even when mental state terms fail to arise in conversation. These experiences provide a developmental scaffold for the ability to understand when psychological facts are conversationally relevant.

4. Revisiting the role of executive functioning in the FBT

The pragmatic development account does not undermine the claim that FBTs place substantial demands on on-line executive processes, but it does mean that we need to revise and elaborate upon how we think these demands actually impact children’s performance on the task. The initial non-salience of beliefs helps us understand why younger children default to a reality-biased response rather than simply responding at chance: given their best guess about the experimenter’s intention based on their linguistic experiences thus far, the reality-biased answer is just the best response available. After all, most of a child’s prior experience and current evidence would support the interpretation that the experimenter is asking about the location of a hidden object (or the actual contents of a container); therefore, the child complies. At this point, the child’s failure on the task amounts to a lack of attentiveness to relevant features of the task, rather than a processing overload. This is perhaps the most counterintuitive element of the pragmatic development account: while we, as adults, see younger children’s reality-biased responses on FBTs as a bizarre breakdown in rationality, there is an important, internalistic sense in which this reply is actually epistemically justified for them given their prior experiences.

However, as children begin to recognize the relevance of belief facts in conversation, they must inhibit the reality-biased interpretation in order to put that information to good use. This requires that children exercise their response-conflict inhibition capacity; if this capacity is not sufficiently mature, then children’s difficulties with the FBT will persist, perhaps leading to improved but still inconsistent success rates. As children’s capacity for response-conflict inhibition develops, they become increasingly able to suppress the non-doxastic interpretation of the experimenter query and solve the FBT. In other words, even though pragmatic factors account for their initial failures on the task, and social learning explains how these pragmatic obstacles are diminished, children’s eventual success on the FBT depends on the development of their executive resources as well.

The main reason why we should prefer the pragmatic development account to processing load accounts is that it is better able to explain why various experiential factors predict individual differences in FBT performance. However, a defender of one of these accounts might question whether the pragmatic development account is compatible with all of the data that speak to the integral relationship between mindreading and executive resources. Specifically, she might challenge the claim that younger children could access the doxastic interpretation if they were so inclined; if it could be shown that the processing demands of the FBT interfere with the mindreading process itself, then the child should fail the task regardless of her antecedent expectations about the conversational relevance of doxastic facts. To support this claim, the proponent of the processing load account could point to evidence that automatic perspective tracking (which nativists take to be a component of the innate theory of mind system) can be disrupted by multiple factors. For instance, Schneider and colleagues (2012) showed in an eye-tracking study that automatic perspective tracking in adults is disrupted when subjects are placed under a working memory load (i.e. while completing an n-back task). Similarly, Rubio-Fernández (2013) showed that adults’ automatic perspective tracking is momentarily disrupted right at the onset of the wh-question in the FBT, which the author interprets as an effect of the pragmatic demands on interpreting the question. These findings would seem to suggest that retrieving belief representations is largely dependent on executive resources, and that interference of various kinds can throw it off track.

In actual fact, this sort of objection is not fatal to pragmatic development account, although each of the above-mentioned studies requires its own reply. First, the Schneider et al. (2012) data: importantly, the present account does not claim that pragmatic errors are the only reason that a child might fail the FBT. Obviously, if some versions of the FBT place a child under a cognitive load, this too could cause the child to fail; in this regard, the Schneider et al. (2012) findings are consistent with the proposed account. In order for these findings to undermine the pragmatic development account, they must cast doubt on its central developmental claim, which is that children’s systematic failures on the FBT prior to their fourth birthday are the result of pragmatic error. Notably, studies with adults can only offer us indirect insight into this sort of developmental change. However, even if we grant that the disturbance caused to adults’ perspective tracking by working memory load probably occurs in children as well, this still does show that such a disturbance is responsible for children’s systematic failures on the FBT; in fact, we have good reason to believe that it is not. Recall that the strongest correlations between early success on the FBT and executive functioning are specific to response-conflict inhibition, not working memory (Carlson et al., 2002). This gives us an independent reason to believe that the relationship between working memory and automatic theory of mind processing does not explain the developmental change that takes place between a child’s third and fourth birthday. So, although working memory load may indeed impede some aspects of the mindreading process, as the Schneider et al. (2012) data suggest, this is probably not what makes younger children systematically fail the task. Thus, these data fail to undermine the central developmental claim of the pragmatic development account.

Next, let us consider the challenge posed by the Rubio-Fernandez (2013) data. The defender of the processing load approach might claim that the disturbance in perspective tracking caused by the onset of the wh-question is evidence that the automatic theory of mind system has lost access to the representation of the agent’s beliefs. But while there is evidence that the subject’s visual attention shifts away from the agent’s perspective at the onset of the wh-question, the further claim that that this perspectival information is no longer accessible is not uniquely supported by the findings in question. It’s just as plausible, given the evidence, that the relevant perspectival information continues to be represented and available, but that younger children simply fail to use it because it is not deemed relevant to their immediate interpretive goals. On my account, the onset of the disruption caused by the wh-question does not overwhelm children’s executive resources – it simply changes the subject, leading children (and perhaps, momentarily, adults) to attend to other features of the situation. Thus, the Rubio-Fernandez (2013) data is not inconsistent with the pragmatic development account. In sum, the current account and processing load accounts would appear to be on a par with respect to these adult perspective-tracking data. Given that the current account also explains the above-mentioned individual differences in FBT performance, nativists about theory of mind ought to prefer it to the alternatives.

The pragmatic development account also makes a few predictions that would serve to distinguish it from other nativist accounts. Building on the surprising 2-seeker result from Lewis et al. (2012), the pragmatic development account predicts that the addition of conflicting perspectives to a FBT might actually lead to improved performance in younger children if the difference in perspectives served to make the agent’s beliefs more conversationally salient. More generally, manipulations that make the content of the agents’ beliefs more relevant to the child’s goals (as in Dudley and colleagues’ interactive game design) ought to improve performance even when holding the executive demands of the task constant. Testing these predictions would certainly require some ingenuity to create the appropriate experimental controls, but as we’ve seen, such experiments can indeed be implemented. The pragmatic development account therefore offers theory of mind nativists both a compelling way to account for apparent counterevidence, and a set of empirical predictions to guide future research.

5. Other advantages of the pragmatic development account

An appreciation of the importance of social learning for FBT performance also reveals an additional role for executive functioning that goes unmentioned in the standard nativist accounts. Several authors have claimed that measures of executive functioning correlate with theory of mind abilities because executive functioning facilitates the acquisition of mental state concepts (Carlson & Moses, 2001; Moses, Malle, & Hodges, 2005; Russell, 1996). Given that executive functioning appears to play an important role for learning in other abstract conceptual domains, such as mathematics, this is a very plausible suggestion (Blair & Razza, 2007; Bull & Scerif, 2010; Espy et al., 2004). Consistent with such accounts, Benson, Sabbagh, Carlson, & Zelazo (2013) found that children’s initial performance on executive functioning tasks predicted the effectiveness of interventions aimed at improving children’s performance on FBTs. However, on the current proposal, we might interpret these results slightly differently: rather than facilitating the emergence of mental state concepts, executive resources appear to play an important role in children’s attending to and learning from their social experiences, which in turn attunes them to the relevance of belief facts during the FBT. Children who are better at paying attention during theory of mind interventions will be better positioned to when determining how to interpret the experimenter’s query during the FBT itself. Thus, executive processes may play a role in a child’s success on FBTs over and above managing the inhibition of non-mentalistic interpretations, namely by facilitating important aspects of social learning more generally.

The pragmatic development account also helps us understand another major developmental finding in the theory of mind literature, namely that children consistently succeed on verbal tasks that implicate the concept of desire well before those that involve false beliefs (Hadwin & Perner, 1991; Rakoczy et al., 2007; Wellman & Woolley, 1990). Explaining these findings has proven challenging for nativists, who hold that basic conceptual understanding of both belief and desire emerge in the first year of life. Leslie and colleagues (Leslie et al., 2004) have argued that desire-based tasks are less demanding on a child’s executive resources than FBTs; however, Rakoczy et al. (2007) have shown that the gap between desire and false belief persists even when both types of task are matched for logical complexity. An initial prediction of the pragmatic development account is that the explanation for this phenomenon is likely to have its roots in children’s conversational experiences, and indeed, there is reason to believe that this might be the case. As I argued in section 3, both our explanations and descriptions of behavior tend to omit any overt reference to beliefs and refer only to desires, which leads talk of desires to be roughly twice as frequent as talk of beliefs;[6] thus, children have a much greater input for desire discourse than for belief discourse (see also Smiley & Huttenlocher, 1989; Taumoepeau & Ruffman, 2006). Moreover the frequency of indirect uses of ‘think’ makes the input for belief discourse fairly noisy, whereas ‘want’ does not seem to pose the same kinds of pragmatic difficulties.[7] One would expect, then, that proficiency with desire-discourse would precede proficiency with belief-discourse, as the input for the former would be both greater and more easily interpretable than the input for the latter. Thus, according to the current account, children succeed on tasks involving desire before they succeed on tasks involving belief because desire discourse lacks the pragmatic obstacles posed by belief discourse.

6. Conclusion

It is worth noting that the pragmatic development account is not meant to show that the FBT tells us nothing interesting about theory of mind development. Even if it does not demarcate a transition to a fully representational theory of mind, the FBT tracks significant elaboration of a child’s theory of mind abilities. As children become better able to participate in belief discourse, they gain access to a new source of knowledge about other minds, namely, the testimony of others. Insofar as this improves children’s ability to track, predict and explain mental states, passing the FBT signals a major development in their theory of mind abilities. Nevertheless, under the current proposal this development would consist in an elaboration upon existing knowledge rather than a radical conceptual change. Through their conversational experiences, children gain insight into the dynamics of belief discourse, which broadens their evidential basis for mental state attribution.

In this paper, I’ve illustrated how learning to use psychological information in conversation poses substantial challenges for young children that have nothing to do with whether or not they possess the concept of belief. Recognizing the dissociation between a child’s mental state concepts and her capacity to understand when beliefs are conversationally relevant highlights a new way of interpreting the relationship between children’s early social experiences and their performance on FBTs. A child innately endowed with the concept of belief must still learn from her social environment how and when this concept gets implicated in conversation. If her social environment is enriched or impoverished with respect to belief discourse, this will have an impact on when and how she learns to talk about other minds. The development of her executive functioning plays dual roles in this process, both during the tasks that measure her competence with belief discourse, and during the social learning process through which she acquires that competence. The pragmatic development account thus provides the theory of mind nativist with a framework for accommodating a wide range of variation in FBT performance brought on by differences in individuals’ social experiences, as well as set of empirical predictions for testing and extending that framework and enriching our understanding of theory of mind development.


I would like to thank Peter Carruthers, John Michael, Paul Pietroski, and Alexander Williams 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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[1] For nativist replies to the above-mentioned arguments, see Baillargeon et al. (2010); Carruthers (2013) and Scott & Baillargeon (2014).

[2] 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).

[3] Corpus analyses are due to Kaitlyn Harrigan and Aaron Steven White (Department of Linguistics, University of Maryland, College Park).

[4] 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.

[5] Third-personal instances of “S thinks that P” can also be indirect. For instance, if Roberta were to answer Agnes’ query from the dialogue above with “Carlos thinks it starts at 7pm,” Roberta is in effect using the sentence as a way of tentatively proffering the complement clause “The game starts at 7pm.” The primary illocutionary act in this case is not to draw attention to Carlos’ beliefs per se, but rather to attempt to the speaker’s question.

Second-personal instances of ‘think’ can be 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] The asymmetric roles of beliefs and desires in folk psychological explanation is itself a fact in need of some explanation. Steglich-Petersen and Michael (forthcoming) 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 for desire; 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.

[7] ‘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.

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Evan Westra

I'm a PhD Candidate in the Philosophy Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. I work on problems in social cognition, especially from a developmental perspective. My dissertation is on the architecture and development of the human mindreading system.

11 thoughts on “Talking about Minds: Social Experience, Pragmatic Development, and the False Belief Task”

  1. Evan Westra presents a well written, persuasively argued paper about a wide range of empirical data that theory of mind nativists do not consider. The paper presents a formidable but friendly challenge that nativists ought to take seriously. In my comments, I shall raise three objections to Westra’s arguments. Though my own view is more nativist than empiricist, my objections will not presuppose either view. What follows is more like poking at the argument from all sides.

    1. Questioning the Setup

    In this paper, Westra argues that nativists about theory of mind offer an incomplete account of how children develop theory of mind abilities. Theory of mind nativists claim that children possess mental state concepts innately, but until their executive function skills mature, they are unable to deploy these concepts successfully in demanding theory of mind tasks. As evidence for this idea, nativists cite the fact that under age 4 children fail the standard false belief task but they pass modified false belief tasks that are not as demanding with respect to attention, memory, inhibitory control, and linguistic processing. Indeed, executive function predicts children’s performance on theory of mind tasks.

    Westra takes for granted that the basic nativist account is correct, but he argues that the view as it is currently articulated does not explain findings that suggest that social experience influences when children succeed on theory of mind tasks. These are findings emphasized by empiricists about theory of mind who argue that theory of mind concepts develop throughout childhood. Westra aims to show how these findings can be incorporated into the nativist account.

    My first and perhaps most fundamental question about the paper is about this setup. One way to construe the argument here is as articulating a middle ground position between the nativist and the empiricist view. The nativist correctly predicts the role of executive function in the performance of theory of mind tasks, but the empiricist is correct that (many aspects of) theory of mind are not innate; they develop over time, given the right experiences and environment. Westra does not construe his argument this way, however, and it would be helpful to know why not.

    2. A Puzzling Disconnection

    Westra’s positive proposal is called the pragmatic developmental account. According to this account, children (indeed infants) are capable of representing beliefs, but before age 4 they are not very good at understanding when in conversation doxastic facts are relevant. Thus, even if they have the concepts and adequate executive function, a further requirement for passing many theory of mind tasks is facility with the pragmatics of conversation about mental states. Westra cites a wide range of data in support of the idea that experience with conversation about mental states is relevant to theory of mind abilities. These data include theory of mind abilities of first-wave vs. second-wave Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) users, theory of mind performance of oral deaf children vs. signing deaf children, the Child Language Data Exchange System database which shows that references to beliefs are half as frequent as references to desires, and evidence that explanations and descriptions of behavior frequently omit references to beliefs. These data suggest that though executive function correlates with theory of mind abilities, experience with language (which does not always correlate with executive function) also predicts theory of mind abilities. This indicates that experience with conversation about mental states makes an independent contribution to theory of mind abilities.

    The resulting idea is that infants and children frequently represent others’ beliefs and other mental states, but at first children do not expect beliefs to be a topic of conversation because their caregivers rarely talk about beliefs. Beliefs, unlike desires, are discussed only when people have conflicting beliefs. Thus, at first when children are queried about beliefs they misinterpret the question. Success on theory of mind tasks requires facility with theory of mind conversation and sufficient executive function abilities.

    A puzzling implication of this view is that despite the fact that they constantly attribute beliefs to other agents (p.2), infants and children do not understand talking about beliefs. Although the data Westra cites are convincing in establishing a role for linguistic experience in theory of mind development, it seems odd to claim that children are always thinking about beliefs but are confused when people talk about beliefs. Here is another way to get at the oddness of this implication. Either children represent of others’ beliefs automatically or in a controlled manner. There seems to be evidence that belief representation is not automatic. Level 1 perspective taking (e.g., judging what a target can see) is automatic for adults and children, but Level 2 perspective taking (e.g., judging the way in which a target sees something) is a controlled process. Belief representation is analogous to Level 2 perspective taking, which suggests that it is a controlled, not automatic process. If this is right, then according to Westra’s account children are deliberating about others’ beliefs all the time, and yet despite this they do not understand talking about beliefs. The disconnection between their thoughts and language is surprising. This is not necessarily to say that this aspect of Westra’s account is wrong. However, more needs to be said about why we should think there is such a disconnection.

    3. The Role of Social Experience

    There are two possible hypotheses about the relationship between executive function and social experience: First, social experience independently contributes to theory of mind abilities (in particular, False Belief Task performance.) This is the hypothesis that Westra endorses. A second hypothesis is that social experience contributes to the development of executive function, which facilitates theory of mind abilities. Westra rejects this hypothesis. His reason for endorsing the first hypothesis over the second hypothesis is the case of NSL users. Initially the first cohort of NSL users failed miserably at theory of mind tasks, while the second cohort succeeded. After exposure to the second cohort of NSL users, the first cohort’s performance on theory of mind tasks improved. Westra argues that, “one could not plausibly attribute the change in the first cohort speakers’ performance on the FBT to a development in executive abilities… as these subjects were adults at the time of the first test, and likely possessed fully mature executive resource” (p. 6). Thus, he concludes that social experience independently contributes to theory of mind abilities.

    Against this conclusion, one could argue plausibly that the first cohort of NSL users developed theory of mind in an atypical, idiosyncratic way. Their development of theory of mind is in many ways very different from normally developing children. The first NSL users are an anomaly, so perhaps it is inappropriate to regard their theory of mind development as representative of all theory of mind development. A nativist could argue that the first cohort of NSL users (perhaps like people with autism, people with brain lesions, or oral deaf children) develop theory of mind in a different way.

    Here are some possible ways to argue against the hypothesis that social experience contributes to the development of executive function, which then facilitates theory of mind abilities. First, one could argue that despite other differences, the first cohort of NSL users develop theory of mind ability in the same way as normally developing children. I am not optimistic about this argumentative strategy. Second, in light of the difference in theory of mind abilities of oral deaf children and deaf signing children, one could point to evidence about the executive function abilities of members of both groups. If there were no difference in executive function abilities between oral deaf children and signing children, this would be evidence in favor of the first hypothesis. I am not aware of any evidence that bears on this issue, however.

    4. Conclusion

    Nativists about theory of mind have a lot to contend with from Westra’s paper. His arguments bolster some of the claims that empiricists have been making for years about the inadequacy of nativism, and he offers a way to handle these arguments within a nativist framework. Although there is still more work to be done – in particular, this debate rests heavily on a controversial issue that Westra sidesteps: how to interpret infants’ success on non-linguistic false belief tasks – this paper represents further progress in understanding how theory of mind develops. I am looking forward to a fruitful discussion of these and other issues that Westra raises in this interesting and well written paper.

  2. In these comments on Westra’s thought-provoking paper, I’ll focus on three interconnected issues: (1) getting clear on the role that nativism plays both in Westra’s paper and in the broader debate under discussion; (2) getting clear on what sort of explanation of these phenomena we should expect to be successful; and (3) getting clear on the specifics of Westra’s pragmatic development account.

    1. Westra alleges that “it is incumbent upon the nativist about theory of mind to show how various types of experience can lead to individual differences in theory of mind development” (p. 2), but, I think nativism is a red herring here. There is a more general distinction—the distinction between conceptual change and processing accounts of why young children fail the SFBT (Kikuno, Mitchell, & Ziegler, 2007)—that somewhat tracks the empiricist and nativist divide (but needn’t), and better pinpoints what Westra aims to explain about the SFBT. What we know is that the ability to pass the SFBT changes dramatically at around age four. What matters for theorists who argue for a processing explanation of this change in abilities is not that belief is innate, per se, but that whatever understanding or conceptual resources it is supposed to bring to bear qua belief are present at some relevant age before four, yet are somehow being masked. Whatever removes this masking cannot be a conceptual change in belief, but must be due to something else. Conceptual change theorists also owe us an explanation of the change in abilities, but they can appeal to conceptual changes in belief, in addition to other factors.

    Explaining the developmental course that Westra charts, then, is not a special burden for nativists per se, but rather a problem for any processing theorist. I agree with Westra that nativists are poised to explain both similarities and differences among children’s abilities, but I fear that identifying this as a nativism-specific problem promulgates the view that nativism primarily comes in some Fodorian, development-resistant strain (the view that Westra hopes to reject) and keeps us from identifying the central issue involved, i.e., not innateness as such, but the viability of processing accounts of the SFBT.

    Every theorist (nativist or empiricist, conceptual change or processing theorist) needs to explain development: both the near-universal emergence of (or similarities amongst) some mindreading characteristics as well as the noted differences in emergence amongst other mindreading characteristics (I think this links up with JM’s last point). While I applaud Westra for highlighting that nativists are capable of allowing for changes of various sorts, the real question for our purposes concerns whether sense can be made of the processing accounts. Can the changes that take place at the time the SFBT is finally passed all be explained without involving any conceptual changes with regard to belief?

    2. Westra describes his target, and then his project, as follows (p. 6-7):

    Explanations of FBT performance that appeal solely to the on-line demands that the task places on executive resources do not tell us much about why these kinds of experiences affect when an individual ultimately overcomes those demands. Even if important maturational changes to children’s executive resources do occur between the ages of three and four, and individual differences in executive functioning do correlate with individual differences on the FBT, it’s not obvious how these internal cognitive developments could explain why an individual’s social experiences also seem to matter for their performance on the FBT. This suggests that, in addition to executive factors, a child’s social environment makes an independent contribution to her performance on the FBT.

    Westra challenges the theorist who appeals “solely to the on-line demands that the task places on executive resources” (my emphasis). Some theorists Westra has in mind may be guilty, at times, of oversimplifying their accounts in a way that makes it appear as though they postulate a sole factor; but, I can’t imagine they would assent to this upon reflection. I think all researchers are going to agree that lots of maturation—including linguistic and conversational development—is going to be required for the child to become a successful participant in the SFBT. Since at least Bloom and German (2000), it has been acknowledged that the linguistic task demands of the SFBT basically preclude younger children from even being candidates for the assessment, and this signals a general commitment to the need for linguistic and conversational development prior to successful candidacy. Hence, processing theorists already require enormous linguistic and conversational development in between, say, 18 and 48 months. They can even be committed to the claim that much of this happens in the child’s fourth year (i.e., the one following the third birthday), which is, as many have pointed out (e.g., Bartch and Wellman), the primary period in which children are exposed to and learn to talk about the mind via mental state vocabulary.

    Hence, I don’t think it’s helpful to paint these theorists as denying the necessary role of linguistic and conversational development in leading to success in the task. They will say the same thing about individual social interactions. Without these ongoing inputs and developments, some hypothetical child who possessed a full-blown mindreading device and simply gained adequate EF would not be linguistically nimble enough to pass the SFBT. Even if the theorists we’re discussing fall back on a one-feature rhetoric to describe their positions (e.g., it’s solely EF development, or solely conceptual development, or solely pragmatic development), I think we should charitably interpret them as attempting to identify the most important factor among many that converge to enable children to pass this task. If we want to use such one-factor rhetoric, I would suggest that we’re looking for the lynchpin that enables the rest of the factors to make their contributions available.

    3. What is Westra’s account? In §2, I noted that Westra allows that even if there is critical maturation in executive factors, his central claim is that “a child’s social environment makes an independent contribution to her performance on the FBT.” Specifically, he suggests the following (p. 2-3):

    Young children do not initially expect people’s beliefs to be a topic for conversation – they have to learn this through experience with the pragmatics of belief discourse – that is, during social interactions in which facts about mental states are implicated in conversation. Through these repeated interactions, children learn to adjust their prior expectations about the relevance of doxastic facts when interpreting particular speech acts. As a result, different levels of experience with belief discourse can affect how children interpret questions like the ones they must answer in FBTs.

    This passage explains his account’s two contributions: (i) the pragmatic account explains what specifically enables the children to pass the SFBT (the lynchpin) and (ii) the differences in the instigating conversational interactions explain the source of variation in the ages at which the SFBT is passed. I have no reservations with (ii) and I think Westra’s account, as he anticipates, gives processing accounts (nativist or not) a plausible and heretofore underutilized explanation of the variances he catalogues. But, I’m not sure I understand how (i) is supposed to be fleshed out. In particular, I am not sure how, or if, the pragmatic account is supposed to be a variant of, or an alternative to, EF accounts.
    I applaud Westra’s concession to the importance of EF development on his account. But, not only does Westra seem to concede the importance of independent EF development, by the end of the paper, he seems to redescribe the child’s exposure to the relevant doxastically-focused conversations (and the ensuing pragmatic wherewithal) as exercises in EF development, or at least as ones in which fairly intense EF is heavily involved. In this “new” role for EF to play in passing the SFBT, Westra has provided an alternative to the Moses et al. account, but I am not sure what Westra is committed to anymore. I don’t see why Westra’s account isn’t just a variant of the EF approach to passing the SFBT.

    Westra adopts a narrow construal of what sorts of limitations having underdeveloped EF places on the child, in that it primarily involves the overwhelming of working memory when attempting multiple tasks. This is a construal that is prominent in the particular claims made by Baillargeon and colleagues, Carruthers, and others, but there is more to EF than that. Classically, EF also includes the very abilities that Westra appeals to as needing to develop in the context of conversations, something along the lines of controlling attentional resources, inhibition of prepotent responses, and the like. If we take the description of pragmatic understanding that Westra provides seriously, it involves some heavy duty pragmatic processing that would not be possible in the absence of significantly developed EF resources. Hence, if pragmatic processing is required to pass the SFBT, then Westra needs to hold that EF is, in a real sense, the developing resource (the lynchpin?) that makes understanding such conversations possible at all (this connects up with SS’s third point). EF isn’t just implicated in answering the question in the SFBT correctly, it’s implicated in being able to interpret doxastically-focused conversations, too.

    Perhaps this is Westra’s point—having the right sorts of conversations is necessary in order for the child to develop the skills needed to set aside certain goals, interests, attentional resources so that the child can understand the question as one involving belief. Perhaps theorists have overlooked how critical these conversations are. But, by hypothesis, the child is having these conversations all along, i.e., ones in which the child and her interlocutors skirt around but never mention beliefs, or later in development, mention them with a bit more frequency. So what is it about having the conversations that allows them to finally get it, i.e., that beliefs are possible topics too? Is that really pragmatic knowledge (akin to Gricean conversational maxims In some situations, speakers will find beliefs relevant but won’t often speak of them) or is it something like the ability to set aside a prepotent scenario for one that involves what the child had, by hypothesis been thinking about all along (the beliefs of the participants)? I’d like to hear more about what Westra thinks about these issues.

    Bloom, P., & German, T. P. (2000). Two reasons to abandon the false belief task as a test of theory of mind. Cognition, 77, B25–B31. http://doi.org/10.1016/s0010-0277(00)00096-2

    Kikuno, H., Mitchell, P., & Ziegler, F. (2007). How do young children process beliefs about beliefs?: Evidence from response latency. Mind & Language, 22(3), 297–316. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0017.2007.00310.x

  3. Evan’s paper presents us with a novel and nuanced perspective on the infant mindreading puzzle. On the one hand, he does a great job of marshaling empirical data that puts pressure on those nativist accounts which lean heavily on the development of executive function in early childhood (How, for example, can such accounts explain the improvements in belief reasoning exhibited by first-cohort Nicaraguan signers who – as adults – have been exposed to the mental state vocabulary of second-cohort signers?). On the other hand, he also wants to retain the central nativist tenet that pre-linguistic infants possess a concept of belief, and that this explains their success on implicit FB tasks. Indeed, he wants to shore up this position up by offering a nativist explanation of why social experience contributes to improved mindreading abilities (an observation which seems on the face of it to favor non-nativist accounts of the development of mindreading).

    Evan starts out from the suggestion that people in general do not tend to refer to beliefs in explaining actions (in particular, far less often than to desires), since most of the relevant beliefs are very frequently part of the conversational common ground (in particular, far more frequently than the relevant desires), and that children consequently do not hear much talk of beliefs. I am really delighted and grateful that Evan has gone to the trouble of taking this suggestion, which was offered fairly speculatively in Steglich-Petersen & Michael (forthcoming), and actually tracking down several sources of data that appear to support it (MacWhinney, 2014; Taumoepeau & Ruffman, 2006). In addition, he builds upon this suggestion to offer a novel pragmatic explanation of young children’s difficulties on elicited response FB tasks: since children do not hear much talk of beliefs, they don’t expect beliefs to be a topic of conversation, and they therefore misinterpret the communicative intention of the experimenter on elicited response FB tasks.

    The development that enables children to pass elicited response FB tasks, then, is that social experience affords them with opportunities to observe and participate in conversations about beliefs, and thereby to become attuned to circumstances and cues that indicate the conversational relevance of psychological facts, and to discover that the concept of belief that they have already been using in interpreting others’ actions is also sometimes implicated in everyday speech.

    So far, so good. Now I come to a couple of points concerning which I would like to invite Evan to offer some further elaboration.

    1. What does it mean for beliefs to be the topic of conversation?

    The account Evan offers depends upon the distinction between situations in which the topic of conversation is beliefs and situations in which beliefs are not the topic of conversation but may nevertheless be relevant in interpreting people’s actions. Young children – so the suggestion – struggle with the former but not with the latter. This is why they can succeed in paradigms where something else is measured, such as looking time or active helping, and where belief reasoning is only implicitly tapped. But my concern here is that even on explicit verbal false belief tasks, beliefs are not really the topic of conversation. Children are asked where Sally is going to look for her marble, not where she believes the marble is located. So, given that young children can implicitly reason about Sally’s belief to form an implicit expectation about what she is going to do next, why can’t they implicitly reason about her belief in order to give an explicit answer to the question about what she is going to do next?
    I am not (yet) convinced that the key difference between the two situations is that belief is the topic of conversation in the one but not in the other (since it seems not to be the topic of conversation in either). Actually, I suspect that Evan’s point is probably a bit subtler than this characterization suggests, and that I am just not yet quite getting it. Perhaps you can say a bit to clarify this, Evan?

    2. Which pragmatic inference(s) do they make?

    This brings me to a second point of clarification/discussion. If we assume that something like the foregoing explains why children don’t interpret the question correctly, we still have to explain how they actually do interpret the question. Evan seems partial to the conjecture that they interpret it as a question about where Sally should look, or would need to look in order to find it. This is one possibility. But there are others: for example, a second possibility is that children assume that the experimenter must be trying to teach them something new (since the situation has all the trimmings of a pedagogical situation, and after all, why would the adult ask a question as silly as it appears to be on the face of it?), and that the right answer must consequently be the one that they do not expect it to be.

    In other words, children might be responding to pedagogical cues in the same way that Topal and colleagues (2008) think leads to the perseverative error on the A-not B task. According to Topal and colleagues, eye contact may elicit a ‘pedagogical learning stance’ (1832), which leads the infants to expect that the adult intends to teach them some generalizable information, such as that the object is generally located in location A, or that one generally searches for the object in location A. This heuristic then distracts the children from making use of the evidence they have just seen that the object has been moved to location B, and thus leads them to make the perseverative error. And indeed, in a version of the task that does not involve the experimenter attending directly to the child, the perseverative search errors were dramatically reduced.

    So, given that there are multiple pragmatic inferences which may plausibly lead children to give the wrong answer on elicited response FB tasks, what grounds do we currently have for believing that young children’s difficulties are due to any one particular type of pragmatic inference? More generally, might there be several different pragmatic inferences which combine to yield the wrong answer? Might some children be led astray by one type of inference and other children by some other type of inference? Might different pragmatic inferences be at work at different stages of development?

    3. Is the relevant kind of ‘social experience’ sufficiently homogenous?

    And finally, a point on behalf of versions of nativism that focus on the importance of executive function for elicited response FB tasks. Specifically, some variation due to various factors notwithstanding, the age at which kids do start to pass elicited response FB tasks is after all pretty constantly in the vicinity of 4.5 years. It seems plausible to explain this constancy by attributing it to some biologically based change that occurs around that age, such as the development of brain structures supporting executive function. Is the relevant kind of social experience sufficiently homogenous across different families and different cultures to provide an alternative explanation?


    Dudley, R., Orita, N., Hacquard, V., & Lidz, J. (2015). Three-year-olds’ understanding of know and think. In F. Schwarz (Ed.), Experimental Perspectives on Presuppositions (pp. 241–262). Springer.

    Helming, K. a, Strickland, B., & Jacob, P. (2014). Making sense of early false-belief understanding. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(4), 167–70.

    Lewis, S., Hacquard, V., & Lidz, J. (2012). The semantics and pragmatics of belief reports in preschoolers. Proceedings of SALT, 22, 247–267.

    MacWhinney, B. (2014). The Childes Project: Tools for Analyzing Talk, Volume I: Transcription Format and Programs. Psychology Press.

    Peterson, C. C., Wellman, H. M., & Liu, D. (2005). Steps in theory-of-mind development for children with deafness or autism. Child Development, 76(2), 502–17.

    Steglich-Petersen, A., & Michael, J. (forthcoming). Why Desire Reasoning is Developmentally Prior to Belief Reasoning. Mind & Language.

    Taumoepeau, M., & Ruffman, T. (2006). Mother and Infant Talk About Mental States Relates to Desire Language and Emotion Understanding, 77(2), 465–481.

    Topal, J., Gergely, G., Miklose A., Erdohegyi, E., Csibra, G. 2008: Infants’ Perseverative Search Errors Are Induced by Pragmatic Misinterpretation. Science 1321: 831-1833.

    Wellman, H. M., Fuxi, F., & Peterson, C. C. (2011). Sequential progressions in a theory-of-mind scale: longitudinal perspectives. Child Development, 82(3), 780–92.

  4. These are all excellent comments! I’m very grateful to Shannon Spaulding, John Michael, and Robert Thompson for going through my paper so thoroughly. You’ve all definitely given me a lot to think about. I’ve opted for grouping your questions together by topic, rather by individual, so that my responses will read a bit more smoothly. As I see it, the questions break down into three categories: clarifications and suggestions, the relevance of nativism, and the respective roles of social experience and executive functioning in the pragmatic development account. Here we go:

    Clarifications and suggestions:

    Shannon and John both raise questions that bear on the same issue: how is it that younger children can possess the concept of belief, and yet fail to apply it during the FBT? My answer is that they have incorrectly guessed the intention behind the experimenter’s speech act when she asks, “Where will Sally look for her marble?” Thus, even though they possess the concept of belief, and have probably spontaneously tracked Sally’s false belief, they do not bring this knowledge to bear on their interpretation of the experimenter’s speech act. They have not, in other words, realized that the fact, Sally believes the marble is in the basket, is relevant when it comes to figuring out what the experimenter really wants from them.

    The reason for this is that children do not expect beliefs “to be a topic of conversation,” as I put it in a few places. But what does this mean? As John points out, it’s not obvious how this question is really about beliefs at all – rather, it seems to be about predicting Sally’s actions. So what is it exactly that children find so difficult about this? I think the answer has to do with the nature of the request: the experimenter wants the child to show that she understands how Sally is thinking (note how mentalistically complicated this request is). By hypothesis, the child knows perfectly well how Sally is thinking – indeed, this may seem so obvious that the child wouldn’t even think to draw attention to it or to talk about it. When the experimenter asks, “Where will Sally look for her ball,” children may thus not realize that they are being called upon to show off this particular bit of knowledge. So, the child makes her best guess about what it is the experimenter wants, and they get it wrong.

    Shannon puts her question in terms of a 2-systems-style approach to mindreading, according to which actual belief attribution (level 2 perspective-taking) is not automatic, but rather under some form of top-down control. Given such an account, it might seem odd to claim that young children engage in this top-down, controlled form of mindreading when it comes to observing Sally’s behaviors, but still do not draw on this knowledge when answering the experimenter’s query. Now, I see my own developmental account as an alternative to the one provided by two-systems theorists, and I think there are a number of good arguments out there for why we shouldn’t buy their account of infant false belief (including some very nice papers from John and Robert!), but let’s set that part of things aside, and suppose that belief attribution is under top-down, intentional control. It still doesn’t follow that concepts tokened during one intentional action (attributing beliefs to Sally) will seem relevant in the context of another intentional action that immediately follows it (interpreting the experimenter’s query). By analogy, suppose that you are completing a crossword puzzle where the answer is “Ryan Gosling.” Your friend, standing behind you, watching you complete the crossword over your shoulder, and exclaims “isn’t he great?” (referring to Gosling). Will you know to whom “he” refers in this context? Only if you realize that your friend is also thinking about Gosling. You may be entertaining Gosling-thoughts while your friend makes her utterance, but it doesn’t follow that you’d subsequently infer that Gosling facts are relevant to interpreting her speech act. I see the young child’s error on the FBT along these lines.

    On this note, I turn to John’s suggestion regarding how children interpret the FBT, namely that they see the interaction as a pedagogical one. The suggestion is an interesting one, and I agree that FBTs probably contain all sorts of pedagogical cues. But what heuristic do you think children would be learning in this case that would lead them to choose the actual location of the marble? I see it in the A-not-B task, but I’m not sure how the analogy would play out in the context of the FBT. It could be that all the pedagogical cues present in the FBT just confuse the child (“something is being taught here, but what?”), but it is not clear how that would lead to systematic errors.

    Here’s one way to go about testing the suggestion that children really interpret the experimenter as recruiting the child’s help (suggested by Katarina Helming and colleagues in [1]): make the agent in the false belief task someone that the child wouldn’t want to help. This could be an out-group member, or perhaps an individual who has just harmed someone else, along the lines of some of the experiments on infant social evaluation that Kiley Hamlin has done [2]. Once a child thinks that the agent is a baddie, this might lead them to suppress their helping response (although I hear it’s pretty hard to get kids to stop being helpful, as this disposition is quite strong even at a very young age).

    The role of nativism in the account, and how I portray the nativist approach:

    Shannon asks, why do I describe my approach as a nativist one, rather than some kind of middle ground between nativists and empiricists? And Robert, in turn, suggests that the nativism-empiricism distinction is actually a red herring in this discussion, and that the real distinction here is one between conceptual change explanations of FBT performance and processing change accounts.

    Addressing Shannon’s question first, I see my account as a nativist one, rather than as a hybrid account, because in the end, I still think that children’s failures on the FBT are the product of performance issues masking their theory of mind abilities, rather than an underlying lack of competence with theory of mind concepts. I’m also fairly convinced that infants possess a representational theory of mind very early in their first year of life. These two commitments pretty much close off the standard empiricist (or, as Thompson puts it, conceptual change) take on why children fail the FBT before 4.5 years of age, namely, that they lack a representational understanding of belief.

    Robert is correct, however, that neither of these commitments imply that theory of mind is actually innate. It could be, for instance, that children still construct their representational theory of mind from experience, but that this construction process is accomplished very rapidly in the first year of life (although I don’t know of anyone who actually holds this view). As long as we accept that children posses their theory of mind at some point in development prior to 4.5 years of age (regardless of how they got it in the first place), explaining why children nevertheless fail this task will be a challenge. In this sense, Robert is right that a more accurate distinction would be conceptual change versus processing accounts, rather than nativism versus empiricism. However, the two sets of distinctions map fairly neatly on one another in practice, and I don’t see the harm in sticking with the nativism-empiricism terminology. I would add that I don’t see my argument as playing off of a Fodorian caricature of nativism – if anything, I am showing how nativism is in fact flexible enough to handle evidence previously thought to provide strong support for empiricism.

    In a similar vein, Robert argues in the second section of his commentary that proponents of the processing load accounts that I criticize would not, upon reflection, accept that social and linguistic experience plays no role in explaining how children eventually come to pass the false belief task. Rather, Thompson suggests, their real claim is that EF is the developmental lynchpin that explains children’s performance on the FBT, as opposed to the sole explanatory factor. This is surely correct – in fact, I would hope that these same theorists would endorse the rest of my argument upon reflection as well! And indeed, the idea that pragmatic and linguistic factors may contribute to the difficulty of the FBT has been around for some time. But it’s one thing to gesture in the direction of these factors, and another to get clear on their respective roles – especially when, as Thompson points out, these theorists often overstate the role of maturational processes that are insensitive to environmental factors. In this respect, my account adds to the nativist position by showing how it can accommodate data that nativists do not typically engage with in much detail, and by drawing connections with other data that help us get straight on the particular pragmatic issues that are at stake. Ultimately, by purpose is to supplement and enrich the nativist approach to theory of mind, rather than to debunk it.

    The role of executive function in the account, and its relationship to learning from social experience:

    Each of my commentators raises concerns about the roles that EF and social experience play in my account and raise several objections on behalf of the processing load theorist. These are all pretty tough questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them, but it’s definitely a tricky point in this whole account. Let’s start with John’s concern about the homogeneity of the social experiences in question. His specific worry is that the timeline for passing the FBT is remarkably consistent: children really do seem to pass around 4.5 years quite consistently across cultures (see [3] for a nice summary). Appeals to social experience generally run into trouble when explaining this type of broad consistency across cultures (just as, conversely, they are especially poised to explain cross-cultural variations). This is why the appeal to biologically constrained maturational processes that are mostly insensitive to environmental variations is a compelling proposal: it offers a potential route to explaining why 4.5 years of age seems to be a developmental watershed. But, as empiricists are quick to point out, dramatic cross cultural variation in false belief performance does exist: for instance, mainland Chinese children pass the false belief task around 4.5 years, but children from Hong Kong do not pass until they are 6 [4], and Samoan children do not pass the FBT until around 8 years of age [5]. Like the findings that I mention in my paper concerning late-signing deaf children and Nicaraguan Signers, these examples of cross-cultural variation offer other prominent divergences from the 4.5 year-old benchmark. These findings suggest that any biological constraints that do contribute to children’s performance on the FBT are probably fairly weak. They also speak against the need to find especially strong cross-cultural homogeneity amongst the social experiences that contribute to FBT performance. It may be that some of the cross-cultural consistency that we do see arises from common underlying cultural factors that affect belief discourse. One factor that could explain this variation is that by 4.5 years of age, many (but not all) children have begun to enter formal schooling [6].

    One thing I mention in my paper is that the forms of social learning relevant to passing the FBT actually requires the use of executive resources like attention, inhibitory control, and working memory. I contrast this role for executive functioning with the one in which it is typically cast by processing load theorists, namely overcoming the demands placed on the child during the FBT task itself.

    But Robert worries that acknowledging this role for EF makes it seem as though it, and not pragmatic experience, is really the developmental lynchpin that explains success on the FBT. But although EF may be necessary for the relevant learning to occur, so is belief discourse. The character of this input matters. This is what we learn from studies showing that exposure to belief discourse affects variation in false belief task performance. Take, for instance, the training study of Lohmann and Tomasello [7]. If mere social interaction were sufficient for improvement on FBT performance, then children in the control conditions of these experiments should have improved on the FBT as well. But it was only children who were trained on aspects of belief discourse that improved. A child’s executive functioning resources add a further source of variance that impacts how effective this training will be. But the difference that this experience makes does not reduce to the difference made by executive functioning. That’s why belief discourse, and not executive functioning, is the lynchpin in my account.

    This last point is also relevant to something Shannon mentions, which is that social experience may really be driving improvements in executive functioning, rather than pragmatic competence, and this is what is helping children overcome the processing demands of the FBT. There are several authors who believe that the development of executive functioning is affected by social experience, and indeed, there are correlations between executive functioning and a number of social factors [8]. Shannon raises this notion of social experience-dependent executive functioning during a discussion of the NSL data, which I cited as evidence against the idea that executive function is the lynchpin when it comes to explaining when we pass the FBT. Shannon argues that the NSL data is something of an anomaly, and should not count as strong evidence against the executive functioning-as-lynchpin view, and so the social experience-dependent version of the executive functioning-as-lynchpin view is still in play.

    As I mentioned in reply to Robert, the effects on FBT performance in question are driven by a particular kind of social experience – namely, experience with belief discourse. Social experience in general is likely beneficial as well, but it is this specific dimension of it that makes a big difference. Shannon’s proposal was to reinterpret the above-mentioned effects of social experience on FBT performance as the product of interactions between social experience and executive function. But if we really want to reinterpret this data, we would have to say that these specific types of social experience have domain-general effects on executive functioning. I know of no evidence for this particular version of the claim that executive functioning depends on social experience. The alternative, which I endorse, is that this experience enables children to acquire domain-specific, pragmatic knowledge, which they are then able to apply to the FBT.

    I also don’t see the NSL data as totally anomalous. Rather, it is an analogous (if slightly more dramatic) instance of what we see with late-signing deaf children: in both cases, performance on communicative, elicited response FBTs is substantially delayed, and specific forms of social experience (“thought bubble” interventions for late-signing deaf children and exposure to mental state vocabulary with first cohort NSL speakers) led to improvements in FBT performance. This is not to say that theory of mind develops in the same exact way as with neuro-typical children, however. Early on in life, these individuals may well have displayed the same basic theory of mind abilities as neuro-typical infants do. But due to their lack of linguistic input, they spent portions of their lives without access to a type of experience that would have facilitated their ability to display their theory of mind competence in tasks like the FBT. Their theory of mind was not enriched by social and pragmatic experience in the same way as that of neuro-typical children. But my guess is that the core competence remains the same (as opposed to children with autism spectrum disorder, where some core theory of mind abilities appear to be compromised quite early on in development).

    1 Helming, K. a et al. (2014) Making sense of early false-belief understanding. Trends Cogn. Sci. 18, 167–70

    2 Hamlin, J.K. et al. (2011) How infants and toddlers react to antisocial others. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 108, 19931–6

    3 Wellman, H.M. (2012) Theory of mind: Better methods, clearer findings, more development. Eur. J. Dev. Psychol. 9, 313–330

    4 Wellman, H.M. et al. (2011) Sequential progressions in a theory-of-mind scale: longitudinal perspectives. Child Dev. 82, 780–92

    5 Mayer, A. and Trauble, B.E. (2012) Synchrony in the onset of mental state understanding across cultures? A study among children in Samoa. Int. J. Behav. Dev. 37, 21–28

    6 Hughes, C. et al. (2014) Lost in Translation? Comparing British, Japanese, and Italian Children’s Theory-of-Mind Performance. Child Dev. Res. 2014, 1–10

    7 Lohmann, H. and Tomasello, M. (2003) The Role of Language in the Development of False Belief Understanding: A Training Study. Child Dev. 74, 1130–1144

    8 Carlson, S.M. et al. (2013) Executive function. In Oxford handbook of developmental psychology 1 (Zelazo, P. D., ed), pp. 706–742, Oxford University Press

  5. Great paper Evan, and greats comments from everyone. I share the worry among the commentators that it may be hard to sharply distinguish the executive-function view from the pragmatic view.

    Here’s maybe one way to push on that: suppose that the reason 3- and 4-year-olds fail the false belief task is that they misinterpret what the experimenter wants, but that they do this because of a deficit in executive functions. Perhaps the process of settling on an interpretation of the question involves a sort of ‘neural competition’ between representations of different interpretations, and the correct, mentalistic, construal is more taxing on working memory than rival interpretations. Maybe that leads to it losing the competition somehow: attempts to think about it over-tax executive functions and seem not to make sense, so the mind just switches to a less taxing interpretation.

    My question is not whether you think this is right (I take it you don’t, since it doesn’t sit well with the evidence of a special developmental role for exposure to mentalistic discourse).

    My question is whether it would be a version of your pragmatic view, or of the executive function view? If the former, you’re differentiating your view from at least two rivals, not just one, and if the latter then I’m losing track of what the pragmatic view says, since it seems to no longer be about the proximate cause of failure (misinterpretation of question) but of a cause a few steps back in the causal chain.

    1. Hi Luke,

      Thanks for your question. I would say that the story you describe could be construed as a version of the pragmatic development account, provided that the explanation of why the doxastic interpretation fails the neural competition appeals to pragmatic experience. If the doxastic interpretation turns out to simply be more taxing on working memory due to properties of the representation itself, as you suggest, then that would really count as a processing load account. What distinguishes the pragmatic development account is that appeal to experience with the pragmatics of belief discourse. Suppose, for instance, that the child settles on the non-doxastic interpretation because it has a higher probability than the doxastic one because, as far as the child knows, doxastic facts are not typically relevant to conversation. If we cash out the neural competition story this way, then we’ve extended our explanation of children’s failure beyond the immediate processing demands of the task itself. Now, that explanation includes an appeal to the child’s pragmatic experiences. Thus, one way to capture the difference between my view and the processing load account is that processing load explanations will always appeal to immediate features of the testing context, whereas mine will also include an appeal to the child’s social experiences up until that point.

  6. “one way to capture the difference between my view and the processing load account is that processing load explanations will always appeal to immediate features of the testing context, whereas mine will also include an appeal to the child’s social experiences up until that point.”

    Interesting. But then how does this gel with what you say above about Shannon’s suggestion that social experiences of a specific sort contribute to developing executive function? That seemed to appeal to past social experiences, but you seemed to count it as a version of the processing load explanation.

  7. I agree, this last proposal is a tricky case. But let’s put it context: Shannon was suggesting that executive functioning might still be the lynchpin that explains performance on the FBT (i.e. that there’s something about the task demands that places demands on EF, and that’s why children with still maturing EF abilities tend to fail it); in other words, a processing load view. But she also suggests an alternative way for the processing load view to incorporate a role for social experience, namely, that it actually promotes the maturation of EF abilities. Notice that the appeal to EF here isn’t (unless I’m misreading Shannon) that children are learning anything in particular from these social experiences, but rather that it facilitates a kind of processing boost for EF in general. On this view, social experience is kind of like a premium motor oil that helps your engine run more efficiently. This is a pretty plausible story about the relationship between EF and social experience more generally, and one that a number of people hold.

    My response was that this account wouldn’t do justice to the specific nature of the social experiences in question: it’s not just being around people that seems to make a difference, but rather observing and participating in a certain type of discourse (as we see in the various intervention studies that I mention, as well as the NSL case). So, as stated, the claim that social experience impacts EF in general won’t do the trick.

    One possible way to modify Shannon’s proposal, which I mention, would be to suggest that belief discourse in particular is an especially efficient form of motor oil for the EF engine. I dismiss this idea, mainly because it’s not particularly intelligible how this domain-specific variety of experience should lead to broad, domain-general benefits. Unlike Shannon’s original suggestion, this is not a view that anyone holds, and it’s not clear that it’s at all plausible.

    But I’ll set aside my skepticism for the moment, so that we can consider how greatly this belief-discourse-as-motor-oil version of the processing view differs from the pragmatic development account. Even though we’ve now worked in a role (albeit a fairly indirect one) for children’s experiences with belief discourse into our explanation of children’s performance on the FBT, the version of the view is still conceptually distinct from the pragmatic development account, because the latter doesn’t view belief discourse as facilitating domain-general EF. Rather, it posits that children just learn about the pragmatics of belief discourse, and this helps them to understand the experimenter’s query in the FBT.
    If we’re having to squint a bit to capture this distinction, it’s probably because the belief-discourse-as-motor-oil view represents a fairly unlikely possibility. On more tractable versions of the processing load account, this problem won’t arise. But I appreciate exploring the idea, it definitely helps me get clearer about my own view!

    So, I may have been imprecise in my reply to your previous comment: it’s not the appeal social experience in general that distinguishes the pragmatic development account, nor even (in this special case that we’ve been discussing) an appeal to experience with belief discourse. It’s an appeal to learning about the pragmatics of belief discourse.

    There’s another point that’s relevant to this whole discussion about the distinction between the processing view and the pragmatic development account, which I actually make in the paper on the bottom of page 12: the Lewis et al 2012 version of the FBT, in which children’s performance is improved by the presence of another Seeker. That’s a clear point of divergence with the processing view, since we’ve actually increased the executive load (by adding another perspective to compute) while decreasing the pragmatic demands of the task (by eliminating the indirect interpretation of ‘think’).

  8. Yes; it is important not to lose sight of the Lewis 2012 findings. That is a really elegant and compelling evidence in support of Evan’s proposal. None of us mentioned it in the commentaries, but it bears emphasizing….

    On a different note, a quick follow-up on what it means for beliefs to be the topic of conversation: if beliefs were explicitly the topic of conversation (e.g. if instead of asking where Sally will look for her marble, the experimenter asked ‘Where does Sally think the marble is?’), you (Evan) would presumably predict that kids under 4 would do much better, right? Since now they don’t have to infer that beliefs are the topic of conversation, i.e. this information is given explicitly. Probably some studies have looked at this at some point, right? Any idea?

  9. Hi John,
    The trouble with using “think” in the experimenter query is that children really do seem to default to that indirect, parenthetical interpretation, as we see in the Lewis et al 2012 study. And I think that in the big Wellman et al meta-analysis from 2001, using “think” doesn’t, by itself, seem to affect performance all that much (although someone should double check me on that – I’m on my phone right now, so I’m just going off what I remember). Notably, almost all false contents and deceptive object FBTs have to use “think.” Younger children just seem to need some kind of additional contextual cues to grasp that belief facts are relevant, even when it might seem really obvious (to us) that they should be.

    I recently came across another study with a manipulation similar to that of Lewis et al 2012 that achieved a similar effect:
    Hansen, 2010, “If you know something, say something: Young children’s problem with false beliefs” in Frontiers in Psychology.

    Hansen was able to boost FBT performance in <4 year olds by asking, “Now, you and I know that the marble is in the box, but where does Sally think it is?” Similarly to the 2-seeker manipulation, explicitly contrasting knowledge and belief seems to help kids pick up on the right Question Under Discussion.

    1. ok, yes, that sounds reasonable….and the Hansen study does seem to fit nicely with your view as well

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