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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Modelling Characters’ Mental Depth in Stories Told by Children Aged 4-10


From age 3-4, children are generally capable of telling stories about a topic free of choice. Over the years their stories become more sophisticated in content and structure, reflecting various aspects of cognitive development. Here we focus on children’s ability to construe characters with increasing levels of mental depth, arguably reflecting socio-cognitive capacities including Theory of Mind. Within our sample of 51 stories told by children aged 4-10, characters range from flat “actors” performing simple actions, to “agents” having basic perceptive, emotional, and intentional capacities, to fully-blown “persons” with complex inner lives. We argue for the underexplored potential of computationally extracted story-internal factors (e.g. lexical/syntactic complexity) in explaining variance in character depth, as opposed to story-external factors (e.g. age, socioeconomic status) on which existing work has focused. We show that especially lexical richness explains variance in character depth, and this effect is larger than and not moderated by age.

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