Young Children's Understanding of False Belief: P3b Responses to an Implicit False Belief Task
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Representational theory of mind (TOM) is the everyday understanding that others’ behaviour is motivated by internal representational mental states such as beliefs, desires and intentions. In the standard false belief task, which traditionally indexes representational TOM, a character places an object in one location, and then leaves the room. During her absence, a second character moves the object to a new location. The first character returns, and children are asked where she will look for the object. Children pass this task (answering that she’ll look in the first location) around 4-5 years. Recently, studies have found that infants and young children succeed on implicit versions of the false belief task – their anticipatory gaze and looking time align with an understanding of beliefs. Some suggest that infants and young children possess a representational TOM, masked by performance limitations, whereas others hold that the early competence relies on a non-representational, perhaps statistical basis. To address this debate, I investigated young children’s false belief understanding using a component of the event-related potential: P3b, a positive potential elicited in response to unexpected events and thought to reflect conceptual updating. Children aged 3.5 to 4.5 years and adults watched 48 trials following the standard false belief task, and P3b was measured in response to seeing the character search in belief- congruent or incongruent locations. I found a significant age group by outcome interaction: adults’ P3b responses corresponded with an understanding of others’ beliefs, whereas young children’s P3b responses reflected a lack of belief understanding. These results support the conclusion that young children do not have a representational understanding of false belief, and that perhaps their early performance on implicit false belief tasks is mediated by an early-developing non-representational understanding. These results have implications for the development of theory of mind.