Research on theory of mind increasingly encompasses apparently contradictory findings. In particular, in initial studies, older preschoolers consistently passed false‐belief tasks — a so‐called “definitive” test of mental‐state understanding — whereas younger children systematically erred. More recent studies, however, have found evidence of false‐belief understanding in 3‐year‐olds or have demonstrated conditions that improve children's performance. A meta‐analysis was conducted (N= 178 separate studies) to address the empirical inconsistencies and theoretical controversies. When organized into a systematic set of factors that vary across studies, false‐belief results cluster systematically with the exception of only a few outliers. A combined model that included age, country of origin, and four task factors (e.g., whether the task objects were transformed in order to deceive the protagonist or not) yielded a multiple R of .74 and an R2 of .55; thus, the model accounts for 55% of the variance in false‐belief performance. Moreover, false‐belief performance showed a consistent developmental pattern, even across various countries and various task manipulations: preschoolers went from below‐chance performance to above‐chance performance. The findings are inconsistent with early competence proposals that claim that developmental changes are due to tasks artifacts, and thus disappear in simpler, revised false‐belief tasks; and are, instead, consistent with theoretical accounts that propose that understanding of belief, and, relatedly, understanding of mind, exhibit genuine conceptual change in the preschool years.
Child Development – Wiley
Published: May 1, 2001
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