Out of the minds of babes

Developmental psychologists are fond of telling us that we can, contrary to popular opinion, read each other’s minds. The initial excitement of this prospect quickly wears off when we find out the sort of mundane mental events they are referring to — namely, the ability to infer another person’s beliefs, desires or goals from their behavior.

OK scientists, so you tricked me again, but let’s hear if you have anything interesting to say on the subject and maybe I’ll forgive you.

Renee Baillargeon, an award-laden developmental psychologist from the University of Illinois and recent guest speaker at the University of Manitoba, does have some exciting contributions.
The soft-spoken Baillargeon articulated her research with that ever-present twinkle of the eye that you sometimes get to see in researchers who are truly passionate about their work. Baillargeon is interested in young children’s thoughts, and spends most of her time studying their knowledge of other people’s false beliefs.

Suppose you are watching the following scene unfold. Sally and Ann are sitting across the table from each other. On the table sits a basket and a box. It’s a riveting story so far, I know. But stay with me. Sally has a toy marble! And she loves her toy marble! She puts her marble in the basket, which is covered by a towel, and then goes away for a while. While she’s gone, Anne — being the unpredictable and whimsical character that she is — removes the marble from the basket and places it in the box. Now, your job is to answer the question: When Sally comes back, where will she look for her marble first?

If you think she’ll look in the basket, congratulations, you’re right! If you didn’t get the answer, you might be either autistic or less than four years old, according to the majority of research on this subject. In either case, it’s cool that you can read this article, but you might need to work on your “theory of mind” skills.

Those with a fully developed “theory of mind” know that Sally has a false belief. She thinks the marble is in the basket, and will behave as if it is (i.e., by looking for it in the basket). Understanding the false beliefs of others is a distinctly human skill and has never been observed in any other great apes, according to Baillargeon. It appears to be an important part of our unique human experience. Such “mind-reading” skills are essential for allowing us to predict, interpret, empathize with — and, yes, even manipulate — other people’s behavior, all of which helps us to function within social groups.

As previously alluded to, researchers generally think that this skill develops (they actually like to say it “comes online”) around age four. However, these beliefs about children’s false beliefs may turn out to be false beliefs themselves. Baillargeon thinks it is a mistake to assume that children don’t understand false beliefs until age four. She thinks that we’re simply asking them the wrong questions.

Or rather, the problem may be that we’re asking questions at all (“where will Sally look for her marble?”). Infants and younger children may be unable to articulate their knowledge of false beliefs due to immature brain and language development.

In order to examine this possibility, Baillargeon attempts to examine theory of mind without directly asking children questions about it.

One way of doing this is to show them a version of the Sally Ann scenario. In this experiment, infants see Sally place a toy frog in a container (let’s be extremely creative and call it “container A”). Then, Sally leaves the room. While she’s gone, Ann switches the frog from container A, to the equally imaginatively-titled “container B.” If infants understand false beliefs, they should expect Sally to look in container A for her frog when she returns, since that is where she originally left it. And, when she does do this, infants aren’t all that surprised. However, when Sally immediately looks in container B for her frog (the container to which it has been moved), infants now act surprised. Now you may be wondering how Baillargeon knows that the infant is surprised? Well, she simply measures how long they spend looking at each of Sally’s reactions (i.e. looking for the frog in container A versus container B). Infants tend to stare longer at novel and unexpected events in their environment. All of this means that the infants were expecting Sally to act on a false belief about where her frog is, which in turn means that knowledge of the mental states of others develops much earlier than scientists originally assumed. Baillargeon points out that infants are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.

After lecturing on what must be (or seems like) a 20-year research history involving these same types of experiments (which includes numerous variations on the Sally Ann false belief test), Baillargeon surprises everyone by stating that if we asked her to come and speak on the subject again in two years, she probably wouldn’t mention any of the studies she’s talked about today, as the field is now moving in an entirely new and very exciting direction.

The methodology previously described is now being used to test infant’s sense of reciprocity, moral values and knowledge of social interactions. Yes, it seems infants actually have these things. For example, in a recent experiment, infants watched a toy giraffe distribute two marbles amongst two other characters. If these characters were the same (i.e., both elephants) then the infant was not surprised when the giraffe fairly distributed the marbles by giving one to each. However, if the two other characters were an elephant and another giraffe, infants were

surprised when the giraffe distributed the marbles fairly. It’s almost as if they expected the giraffe to give all the marbles to the other giraffe, or in other words, to show preferential treatment to members of the same group. While it’s too early to infer much from these preliminary results these methodologies will help us learn a lot about infants’ social ideas and beliefs before they are even able to articulate them. And so far it seems they have a lot more of these ideas than we might think.