When the Wrong Answer Makes Perfect Sense How the Beliefs of Children Interact With Their Understanding of Competition, Goals and the Intention of Others
WHEN THE WRONG ANSWER MAKES PERFECT SENSE – CHILDREN'S UNDERSTANDING OF COMPETITION, GOALS AND THE INTENTIONS OF OTHERS
Dr Johannes Roessler, Department of Philosophy
Out of the mouths of babes... It has long been acknowledged that young children have a particularly penetrating kind of common sense. However, in the early years of development, their understanding of the actions of others appears to be clouded by that same sense. Dr Johannes Roessler describes a recent test that explored their comprehension of others' intentions via the means of pre-schoolers, chocolate and false beliefs.
In a seminal article published exactly thirty years ago, Josef Perner and Heinz Wimmer reported that while most four-year-old children correctly predict that Max will go to the kitchen drawer, most three-year-olds do not: they tend to insist that Max will look in the kitchen cupboard. It’s not until the age of four that normally developing children, as the point is often put, ‘pass the false belief test’. This finding inaugurated three decades of intense experimental and theoretical work on children’s developing ‘theory of mind’ — work that has immensely enriched our understanding of the development of children’s social cognition. The fundamental theoretical question, though, is still with us: what should we make of young children’s (now exceedingly well documented) inability to correctly predict actions informed by false beliefs?
On one view, the finding should be seen as part of a converging body of evidence that young children lack a ‘theory of mind’: they are unable to think of themselves and others as intentional agents with mental states, such as beliefs, desires, perceptions, emotions and so on. A rival view has it that performance on the traditional false belief task is simply not a good test for children’s psychological understanding. On this view, what makes the task hard for young children are largely extraneous factors, such as complex language or inhibitory control. Recently, a third view has emerged. This view promotes a more nuanced analysis of young children’s difficulties with the ‘false belief test’. It suggests that their performance on the test reflects a crucial insight, as well as a significant limitation. People tend to do what it makes sense for them to do. On this point, three-year-olds seem to have a firm grip. It makes perfect sense for Max to look for his chocolate in the kitchen cupboard. That, after all, is the way to get hold of his chocolate. Note that young children don’t seem to guess where Max will go. If they were guessing, one would expect them, at least occasionally, to hit on the right answer by accident. In fact, though, they reliably — and resolutely — give the wrong answer. This is unsurprising if they think of intentional actions as actions that ‘make sense’ — actions done for reasons — (a real insight), but fail to understand that what someone will do in a given situation depends on the agent’s — limited and potentially ill-informed — perspective on their reasons (Perner and Roessler 2010).
How might this diagnosis be tested empirically? Here is a prediction. If young children make sense of intentional action not in terms of the agent’s mental states, but in terms of her objective circumstances, they should find it hard to understand and predict intentional actions whenever the agent’s view of the relevant features of the situation conflicts with their own view. The ‘false belief test’ is an example of just such a situation. Another example would be a competitive game. Here is why. To understand the point of your opponent’s competitive behaviour, you need to appreciate that from her perspective, it’s desirable that she should win. That’s what gives her a reason to impede and obstruct your own best efforts to win. You might say that it’s surely possible to engage in competition — to play competitively— without necessarily understanding your opponent’s behaviour in terms of her subjective reasons. In fact, though, the two things will tend to go hand in hand. For one thing, if you don’t get the point of your opponents attempt to foil your own intentional activity, you won’t understand the idea of retaliation: i.e. repaying in kind.
To investigate young children’s understanding of competitive behaviour, we tested seventy-one children between the ages of three and five on a simple competitive game. Each player had a wooden stand on which to collect beads. The aim of the game was to fill one’s stand as quickly as possible. In each round a participant cast the die and was allowed to collect the number of beads shown on the die. Crucially, participants could either take the required beads from a community basket or from another player’s stand. The main result of this study was that there is high correlation between success on a traditional false belief test and the tendency to ‘poach’ beads from a competitor’s stand. Very few children who failed the false belief test performed any such ‘poaching moves’ — they failed to do so, remarkably, even when they themselves became the target of such moves by the other participants. (Priewasser, Roessler and Perner 2012)
These findings lend some support to the hypothesis that while young children are able to see themselves and others acting intentionally, i.e. acting for reasons, they conceive of the reasons informing intentional actions as objective features of the actor’s situation. That doesn’t mean young children cannot recognize when someone is doing something that serves no (in their view) desirable end. What they find hard is to appreciate that such actions can be intelligible in terms of the agent’s idiosyncratic conception of what is a desirable end.
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Dr Johannes Roessler is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy. He works on issues in the philosophy of mind and epistemology. Two main interests are: the role of perceptual experience in providing for perceptual knowledge, and the nature of self-knowledge. He came to Warwick as a research fellow in the AHRC interdisciplinary project on Consciousness and Self-consciousness.
Agency and Self-Awareness: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology Edited by Johannes Roessler and Naomi Eilan
Clarendon Press ISBN: 978 0-19-924562-8