The question of when children understand that others have minds that can represent or misrepresent reality (i.e., possess a ‘Theory of Mind’) is hotly debated. This understanding plays a fundamental role in social interaction (e.g., interpreting human behavior, communicating, empathizing). Most research on this topic has relied on false belief tasks such as the ‘Sally-Anne Task’, because researchers have argued that it is the strongest litmus test examining one’s understanding that the mind can misrepresent reality. Unfortunately, in addition to a variety of other cognitive demands this widely used measure also unnecessarily involves overcoming a bias that is especially pronounced in young children—the ‘curse of knowledge’ (the tendency to be biased by one’s knowledge when considering less-informed perspectives). Three- to 6-year-old’s (n = 230) false belief reasoning was examined across tasks that either did, or did not, require overcoming the curse of knowledge, revealing that when the curse of knowledge was removed three-year-olds were significantly better at inferring false beliefs, and as accurate as five- and six-year-olds. These findings reveal that the classic task is not specifically measuring false belief understanding. Instead, previously observed developmental changes in children’s performance could be attributed to the ability to overcome the curse of knowledge. Similarly, previously observed relationships between individual differences in false belief reasoning and a variety of social outcomes could instead be the result of individual differences in the ability to overcome the curse of knowledge, highlighting the need to re-evaluate how best to interpret large bodies of research on false belief reasoning and social-emotional functioning.
Ghrear, SibaBaimel, Adam
Haddock, TaehBirch, Susan A.J.
Department of Psychology, Health and Professional Development
Year of publication: 2021Date of RADAR deposit: 2021-01-06