A team of researchers from the University of Warwick and
University of Salzburg found most children under 4 did not have a developed
understanding of other people's perspectives, specifically of the fact that
what someone intentionally does, depends on their take on the situation.
Johannes Roessler, from the Department of Philosophy at the
University of Warwick, and his co-authors Beate Priewasser and Josef Perner
from the Department of Psychology at the University of Salzburg, tested 71
children aged between 3 and 5 years old.They first tested the children to assess whether they
understood that people sometimes act on the basis of false beliefs.
Roessler said: “In the classical ‘false belief task’,
children watch a boy put some chocolate in a drawer and go off to play. Someone
comes along and moves the chocolate to the cupboard. The experimenter then asks
children where the boy will go to retrieve his chocolate. Children under the
age of 4 tend to predict that he will go straight to the cupboard, because that
is where the chocolate now is, even though the boy had no means of knowing this!"
“Older children tend to predict that he will go to the
drawer, which is the correct answer because the boy believes the chocolate to
be in the drawer. Thus younger children seem to lack a developed understanding
that people’s intentional actions reflect their perspective (beliefs) on how
best to accomplish their goals.”
The researchers wanted to explore how much young children
understand other people’s goals: do they understand that an actor’s goals
reflect his or her perspective on what’s desirable?
The team set up a game for the children. They each had a
vertical stand and were told they had to throw a die and then put the
corresponding number of beads on their stand. The aim of the game was to be the
first to fill their stand with beads, taking them either from the central
basket or from other players’ stands.
Roessler said they wanted to see if the children would take
beads from the basket (neutral move) or from another player (a competitive or
‘poaching’ move). The point of taking beads form another player’s stand is of
course not just to further one’s own goal (to fill one’s stand) but also to
foil the other player’s attempt to reach his or her goal (to fill his or her
own stand). The intentional use of poaching moves then, may be expected to show
an understanding that the two players have different, and conflicting, goals,
i.e. different perspectives on which outcome is desirable.
The results showed that very few children who failed the
false belief task showed any tendency to engage in competitive poaching moves.
This was so even when these children suffered from their opponent’s poaching
moves: they would not ‘retaliate’. This last finding was especially significant.
If children understood the goal informing the other’s poaching moves, one would
expect them, at least occasionally, to respond in kind.
“The ‘four years of age’ rule isn’t hard and fast. What’s
important is not the absolute age of the child, but the fact that those who do
not understand how intentional action can be informed by false beliefs also
tend to struggle with the idea of competition.”