We Might Be Wrong About How Children Understand The Minds of Others at a Young Age

It's possible that we underestimate how much children know about other people's minds. In fact, we may be expecting too much from kids too young.
Psychologists have been unanimous in stating that preschool is when a child's mind develops. Experiments show that most children understand by five years old that other psychological beings are also human with their own thoughts, desires, perceptions and beliefs.

Since the 1980s, experiments on children's comprehension of false beliefs in other people have been done using the widely-known Sally-Anne test.

One character, let's call him Maxi, puts a piece of chocolate in a blue container. He then leaves the room, and his mother comes back. As Maxi's chocolate is being taken out of the blue container, the mother places it in a nearby green box. Maxi then returns to the room. The child who is observing is asked to guess which box Maxi will open in order to find his chocolate.

This experiment has been repeated for decades. The results suggest that 90 percent of preschoolers believe Maxi will open the blue box. Maxi's mother never moved the chocolate, so preschoolers know Maxi has a false belief.

What if these results were misinterpreted all along? The long-held belief of developmental psychologists has been challenged by new data from Phoenix, Arizona's decade-long false-and true-belief studies. These studies were conducted with 580 children between 4 and 7.

The results of the experiment change a lot when a third box is added. Research has shown that preschoolers can't decide which Maxi box to choose. They split their choices 50/50 between blue and red.

According to William Fabricius, a psychologist at Arizona State University, "When there are only 2 locations, children aged 4 and 5 can answer correctly but not really understand that Maxi has a false belief regarding the location of the chocolate bars."

"Adding a third location causes them to guess at chance between the two empty places."

Preschoolers seem to be able to see that Maxi doesn't know where the chocolate is, as he didn't see his mother place it there. Maxi's 'wrong choice' is the red or blue box, according to them.

This thinking is called perceptual access reasoning (or PAR) by the authors. A child may understand that seeing leads to knowledge, but they don't incorporate Maxi's memory of putting the blue box with the chocolate in it into their answer.

According to psychologists, children will answer correctly if there is one empty place (the bluebox).

They guess when there are two empty places (blue boxes and red boxes).

Maxi's motivations are not something you can guess at. New experiments have shown that Maxi's thought process is difficult to comprehend for 5-year-olds and 4-year-olds, regardless of whether they believe it or not.

Preschoolers, for example, tend to believe that Maxi will go in the green box and not the blue one where he left the chocolate when Maxi leaves the room.

Fabricius explains that perceptual access reasoning users are not mature enough to understand that memories can persist across situations.

They don't understand that Maxi might have remembered putting the chocolate bar in the blue box. This series of experiments shows that children don't understand mental representation until they reach 6 or 7.

False belief studies are a standard test for the theory of mind. However, these experiments show that they may only measure PAR.

If PAR is, as the authors claim, a precursor for a fully developed theory of mental faculties, then we should adjust our expectations of preschoolers and infants and toddlers that are believed to have abilities related to theories of mind.

Toy sharing requires children to be able to understand the desires of other children and their current mental state. Preschoolers might not understand why another child is crying if they take their toy.

An educator who knows this can use a child's ability for PAR to help the children understand each other.

We say to the crying child, "I can see that you are upset. Johnny took your toy." Is that the reason you are so upset? Anne Kupfer is the director of ASU’s Child Study Lab (CSL).

We then ask the child to role-model and ask them to explain to Johnny why they are upset that he took their toy. We then ask Johnny to look at this sad child and tell him, "She just told me she was upset." What is the reason she is upset? Johnny can then reply, "Because she took my toy."

The new experiments' authors acknowledge that their results need to be replicated and further research will be needed to investigate alternative explanations for PAR.

However, this pattern of findings raises important questions about how we interpret one of the most famous developmental psychology experiments.

Monographs of The Society for Research in Child Development published the study.