Mind reading is sometimes considered as a mysterious, all-mighty powerful and supernatural ability, glorified by the Hollywood movies, televisions and people’s fantasy. Here I am not talking about that kind of mind reading. I am focusing on the day-to-day mind-reading ability that you and I all have. Adults routinely interpret others’ behavior in terms of underlying mental states. We may not know what exactly others are thinking at every moment, but we do readily understand that Cinderella wants to go to the ball, does not know her fairy godmother will soon arrive to make her dreams come true, and falsely believes she will spend yet another evening mending clothes? But since when can we read others’ mind? Can babies also read your mind?
Child psychologists have investigated on these issues for a long while. Children’s mind-reading includes their abilities to understand various types of mental states, such as emotions, intentions, preferences and so on. In particular, children’s understanding of false belief has drawn much attention. If children understand that Cinderella falsely believes she will spend yet another evening mending clothes, then children already understand that what is in people’s mind is a representation but not a copy of reality, it can be true or false.
Let’s try a false-belief task for children. Imagine you re the child. First you are presented with a story about Sally. Sally has some chocolate and she puts it in the basket to keep for later. Then Sally leaves. While Sally is gone, another person takes the chocolate out of the basket, and puts it in the box instead, then goes away. Then the experimenter asks you: “when Sally comes back, where will she look for her chocolate? In the basket or in the box? ” If you are not asleep, you will say the basket. Bingo! Children aged 4 years and older also say Sally will look for the chocolate in the basket (the original location), based on Sally’s false belief. In contrast, 3-year-olds say Sally will look for the chocolate in the box (the current location), based on the reality.
It seems 3-year-olds don’t have an understanding of false belief. However, we may have underestimated them. This task involves too much language, the story is all verbally presented, and the child needs to answer a direct question, which is particularly challenging for younger child whose language skills are not well developed.
Therefore, some researchers have recently developed non-verbal tasks to test younger children’s false-belief understanding. Instead of asking the child a direct question, we just show them a puppet show without much language and measure the child’s spontaneous responses, such as how long they look or where they look.
I know many people enjoy watching magic shows. In fact, researchers are also inspired by the magicians. If I show you there is a rabbit inside my hat, you probably will be very surprised and stare at it for a long time to figure out the trick. If there is nothing inside my hat, you will probably look away and get bored easily. Because people tend to look longer at the unexpected event than at the expected event, I can infer your expectation about the hat’s inside by measuring how long you look.
Using non-verbal this method, we found that children in their first year of life can already understand that a person may hold a false belief. We did underestimate babies. Babies CAN read our mind to some extent.
Baillargeon, R., Scott, R., & He, Z. (2010). False-belief understanding in infants Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14 (3), 110-118 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.12.006
Wellman, H., Cross, D., & Watson, J. (2001). Meta-Analysis of Theory-of-Mind Development: The Truth about False Belief Child Development, 72 (3), 655-684 DOI: 10.1111/1467-8624.00304
Wimmer, H. (1983). Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception Cognition, 13 (1), 103-128 DOI: 10.1016/0010-0277(83)90004-5