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Theory of Mind and Emotion

Megan Bloom

Recent research has documented a developmental lag between a child’s understandings of false-belief tasks and seemingly contextually similar emo- tion tasks. This study sought to replicate the results of a recent study that examined the effects of direct child participation on their understanding of emotions. Children performed all tasks in Maisy’s Pop-Up Playhouse, a col- orful manipulative with movable parts and paper dolls. In contradiction to previous studies, results indicate that 4-year-old and 5-year-old children have little trouble passing false-belief tasks and identifying unhappy and sur- prise situations regardless of how directly involved they are in planning the event. Further research should investigate whether the engaging aspects of the tasks account for children’s superior performance.

INTRODUCTION

The ability to reason about the knowledge, beliefs, intentions, and emotions of others is a uniquely human capability that seems to develop in a distinct pattern of emerging belief-desire psychol- ogy from early childhood into adulthood. Belief- desire reasoning is central to the development of a theory of mind (Wellman, 1985). The ability to attribute mental states and to use these mental states to predict behavior relies upon the strategies belief-

a slightly younger age, children begin to sponta- neously use desire terms, such as want and like, but generally do not employ belief terms until later

(Wellman,

Phillips,

&

Rodriguez,

2000).

Three-

year-olds, who are ity to reason via

beginning to acquire the capabil- belief, rely too much on desire

based reasoning to pass capable of successfully iors when those beliefs

false belief tasks. Though predicting another's behav- are congruent with reality

and successfully explaining when they are inconsistent

another's behaviors even with reality (Bartsch &

desire child's

psychology

provides.

Most

theory of mind is assessed by

frequently, a standard false

belief

tasks,

particularly

change

of

object

tasks

and

change of location for understanding

tasks. Such tasks are useful tools a child's developmental progress

Wellman, behaviors the world Keenan, (Cassidy,

1989), 3-year-olds fail to predict a person's when they are based on a false belief about (MacLaren & Olson, 1992; Ruffman and 1996) that is contradictory to desire 1998a; Cassidy, 1998b). Three-year-olds

because they incorporate what an agent wants in agent believes.

the child's understanding of coordination with what an

A child's development of theory of mind is congruent with his development of belief-desire rea- soning. A child who fails false-belief tasks seems to consider only what the agent wants and fails to con- sider that the agent may believe something that is inconsistent with reality. A child who passes such tasks exhibits a sophisticated understanding of belief and desire (Wellman, 1990). To clarify, 2-year-olds, who base their attribution of mental states solely on desire, are incapable of passing false belief tasks. At

seem to allowed

perform better on false belief tasks to play an interactive role in the task

when (Hala

& Chandler, coordination

1996). By four to five years of age, the of belief and desire reasoning is devel-

oped belief

enough that children consistently tasks (Wellman, 1990).

pass

false

A child's understanding of emotion is often classified in terms of beliefs and desires as well. As early as two to three years of age, children are able to understand happiness and sadness as a result of desire fulfillment (Wellman & Bartsch, 1988; Wellman & Wooley, 1990; Yuill, 1984), as long as the situation is objectively desirable (MacLaren &

Perspectives in Psychology

Spring 2003

3

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