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Educational Psychology on False-Belief Task - Dictionary of Arguments

Upton I 102
False Belief Task/Educational psychology/Upton: The task most commonly used to assess theory of mind is the ‘false belief task’ (Wimmer and Perner, 1983)(1). There are a number of variations of this task, but probably the most famous is the ‘Sally Anne task’ (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985)(2). Children are told or shown a story involving two characters, Sally and Anne, who have a basket and a box, respectively. Sally also has a ball, which she places in her basket, and then she leaves to take a walk. While she is out of the room, Anne takes the ball from the basket, eventually putting it in the box. Sally returns, and the child is then asked where Sally will look for the ball. If the child answers that Sally will look in the basket, where she put the ball, they have demonstrated understanding of mind (…).
Problems: The results of research using false belief tasks have been fairly consistent: most typically, developing children are unable to pass the tasks until around the age of four. However, it has been suggested that this is because younger children misinterpret the key false belief question – ‘Where will Sally look?’ – to mean ‘Where should Sally look?’ (Siegal and Peterson, 1994)(3). If this is so, their wrong answer is actually correct. Indeed, three year olds have been found to perform better when the question is reworded to a less ambiguous form, for example ‘Where should Sally look first of all’ (Siegal and Beattie, 1991)(4).
Upton I 104
It has also been suggested that three year olds are unable to demonstrate their understanding of mind because of the burden that tasks such as these place on immature processing skills, such as memory and reasoning (Flavell and Miller, 1998)(5). This has been tested by the ‘false photograph task’ (Leslie and Thaiss, 1992)(6), which has the same burden in terms of memory and inference, but does not require children to consider another’s mind. In this task, children are shown a doll placed sitting on a box. They are then given an instant camera and asked to take a photo of this. The doll is then moved to a new position such as sitting on a mat. The child is then asked, ‘Where will the doll be in the developing photo?’ Once again, four year olds are able to answer this question correctly – three year olds are not. This strongly suggests that the three year olds’ inability to answer the false belief task is at least partly related to poorer processing skills.



1. Wimmer, H and Perner, J (1983) Beliefs about beliefs: representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception. Cognition, 13: 103–28.
2. Baron-Cohen, S, Leslie, AM and Frith, U (1985) Does the autistic child have a theory of mind. Cognition, 21: 37–46.
3. Siegal, M and Peterson, CC (1994) Children’s theory of mind and the conversational territory of cognitive development, in Lewis, C and Mitchell, P (eds) Origins of an Understanding of Mind. Hove: England: Erlbaum.
4. Siegal, M and Beattie, K (1991) Where to look first for children’s knowledge of false beliefs. Cognition, 38: 1–12.
5. Flavell, JH and Miller, PH (1998) Social cognition, in Kuhn, D and Siegler, RS (eds) Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 2: Cognition, perception, and language. New York: Wiley.
6. Leslie, AM and Thaiss, L (1992) Domain specificity in conceptual development: neuropsychological evidence from autism. Cognition, 43: 225–51.


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution.
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Educational Psychology
Upton I
Penney Upton
Developmental Psychology 2011


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