From interest contagion to perspective sharing: How social attention affects children's performance in false-belief tasks

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A large amount of socio-cognitive research has been devoted to questions about different perspectives – how do we understand that other people can have their own perspectives on reality. This is typically studied with so called false-belief-tasks (FBTs), which are experimental tasks designed to tap into an ability to understand that other people may have beliefs differing from our own (perspective-taking). Children show some evidence of such ability between 15 months and 4 years of age, depending on how they are tested, which have led to controversy regarding the nature of this ability. Another branch of research, often called social attention, has been concerned with how we tend to become influenced by other people’s attention, so that we attend to what they attend to. Notably, when attending the same information as someone else we are likely to think about the same information and converge on similar beliefs, i.e. share a perspective. In this thesis, I asked whether the explanatory burden of presumptive theories of perspective-taking can be reduced when taking into account how social attention helps us share perspectives. I address this question in three papers, in collaboration with colleagues.
Paper I is a theoretical investigation of what is needed in order to share a perspective. The developmentally earliest claims of children showing sensitivity to others’ false beliefs are currently aimed at 7 months of age. In this paper I and colleagues challenge this claim, by arguing that the results are better explained by the low-level mechanism of interest contagion, a human tendency to attend to what others attend to without reflecting on this fact, together with recognition memory. Whereas the experiments with 7 month old infants do not show evidence of perspective-taking, they do provide evidence about how perspectives can be shared, which in turn can help us understand perspective-taking.
Paper II is an empirical study of what happens when 3-4 year old children watch a film in which a boy named Maxi comes to have a false belief about his toy’s location. They watch either with an experimenter attending the story together with them, or alone while the experimenter does something else. In the end, they are subject to a FBT – the experimenter asks them about where they expect Maxi to go to fetch his toy. We find that children are more likely to report that Maxi will search where he thinks the toy is, rather than where it is really (thus passing the test), if they have watched the story together with the experimenter. We also tested children’s memory of the story, with mixed results. We therefore suggest that whatever helps children succeed on the FBT is specific to reasoning about others’ perspectives.
Paper III is a follow-up study using eye-tracking in order to investigate 1) whether children watch the story differently when watching together with the experimenter, and 2) whether they look in advance to where Maxi is expected to go even if they give the wrong answer to the verbal question. We find that children who watch together with an experimenter scan the scene more (more fixations), and that most of the children who fail the FBT question from the experimenter still looks in advance to where Maxi is expected to look, hence showing some sensitivity to the fact that Maxi is mistaken about his toy’s location.
Taken together, these studies suggest that sharing a perspective with someone scaffolds understanding of how perspectives may differ. This fits a theory of perspective-taking in which people are contextual cues to situations which was previously shared with them, which I argue explains a lot of the presently existing data parsimoniously.
Tilldelande institution
  • Institutionen för psykologi
  • Lindgren, Magnus, handledare
  • Brinck, Ingar, handledare
  • Psouni, Elia, handledare
Tilldelningsdatum2016 juni 11
ISBN (tryckt)978-91-7623-852-3
ISBN (elektroniskt)978-91-7623-853-0
StatusPublished - 2016 maj 20

Bibliografisk information

Defence details
Date: 2016-06-11
Time: 10:00
Place: Edens hörsal, Paradisgatan 5 H, Lund
External reviewer(s)
Name: Pierre Jacob
Title: Professor
Affiliation: Institut Jean Nicod, Ecole normale supérieure

Ämnesklassifikation (UKÄ)

  • Psykologi (exklusive tillämpad psykologi)


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