A Child's Theory of Mind: Mental Life May Change Radically around Age 4

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, July 17, 1993 | Go to article overview

A Child's Theory of Mind: Mental Life May Change Radically around Age 4


Bower, Bruce, Science News


If you think kids say the darnedest things, get a load of what they think.

Consider a group of pre-schoolers shown a box that they all agree appears to contain candy. Each child gets a chance to fling open the receptacle, but only a stash of crayons greets their hungry glares. If asked by an experimenter what someone else will think the box contains upon first seeing it, 4- and 5-year-olds typically grin at the trick and exclaim "Candy!"

They realize, in their devilish way, that the shape and design of the box at first create a false belief.

Yet most 3-year-olds react entirely differently to the trick box. After falling for the sweet deception, they insist that a newcomer will assume crayons lie within the container. If an adult enters the room, peers into the box, and does an obvious double take, 3-year-olds still maintain that the grown-up expected to find crayons. What's more, the same youngsters confidently assert that they, too, initially thought the box held crayons.

Of course, 3-year-olds cherish cantankerous and contrary remarks, but further experiments indicate that a deeper process orchestrates their explanations of the world.

Observe, for instance, preschoolers given some toys purchased at a novelty store: a large sponge shaped and painted to look like a rock, a "sucker" egg made of chalk, and a green cardboard cat covered by a removable red filter that makes it appear black. Give them plenty of time to examine the objects. Most 4- and 5-year-olds separate each object's real qualities from its apparent attributes; they note, for instance, that the sponge only looks like a rock.

But those obstinate 3-year-olds find such subtleties about as appealing as going to bed early, In their minds, an object possesses either real or apparent characteristics, but not both at the same time. For instance, some assert that the phony rock looks like a sponge and really is a sponge, while the cat looks black and really is black.

These findings emerge from research conducted over the past decade to examine how children reach an understanding of the mind's trappings, such as beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions. Some investigators contend that this hybrid of developmental and cognitive psychology explores the ways in which children construct "theories of mind." Others argue that the research illuminates the origins of "folk psychology," or people's shared assumptions about how the mind works.

Whatever terminology they use, scientists generally agree that knowledge about mental states and attitudes changes substantially throughout childhood. Debate revolves around a number of clashing explanations of how and why that change takes place.

"There's a genuine argument now over whether a fundamental shift occurs in children's understanding of their own and others' minds between ages 3 and 5," says John H. Flavell, a psychologist at Stanford University and an early explorer of how preschoolers understand thinking.

The March BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES contains two opposing reviews of research on children's understanding of the mind, as well as 60 written comments from an international group of investigators.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget launched the study of how youngsters conceptualize mental life more than 50 years ago. He argued that infants use a few basic reflexes, such as sucking objects that enter their mouths and following moving objects with their eyes, but extract no other meaning from the environment. Preschoolers make themselves the center of the universe, in Piaget's theory; they fail to grasp that other people have different viewpoints and different sources of knowledge. A full appreciation of mental states as experienced by oneself and others blooms in later childhood and adolescence, Piaget held.

Today, researchers contend that more goes on in the heads of babies and young children than Piaget imagined. …

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