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Rethinking the Relationship between Social Experience and False-Belief Understanding: A Mentalistic Account

  • Author(s): Roby, E
  • Scott, RM
  • et al.

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It was long assumed that the capacity to represent false beliefs did not emerge until at least age four, as evidenced by children's performance on elicited-response tasks. However, recent evidence that infants appear to demonstrate false-belief understanding when tested with alternative, non-elicited-response measures has led some researchers to conclude that the capacity to represent beliefs emerges in the 1st year of life. This mentalistic view has been criticized for failing to offer an explanation for the well-established positive associations between social factors and preschoolers' performance on elicited-response false-belief tasks. In this paper, we address this criticism by offering an account that reconciles these associations with the mentalistic claim that false-belief understanding emerges in infancy. We propose that rather than facilitating the emergence of the capacity to represent beliefs, social factors facilitate the use of this ability via effects on attention, inference, retrieval, and response production. Our account predicts that the relationship between social factors and false-belief understanding should not be specific to preschoolers' performance in elicited-response tasks: this relationship should be apparent across the lifespan in a variety of paradigms. We review an accumulating body of evidence that supports this prediction.

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