The Interactive Effects of Executive Functioning and Relevant Experience on Theory of Mind Development
Benson, Jeannette Elizabeth
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This study investigated processes underlying the relation between executive functioning and false belief knowledge in preschool-aged children. The primary goal was to test the theory that executive functioning skills equip children with the cognitive tools necessary for experience-driven social conceptual change. To explore this possibility, 3.5-year-old children were recruited to participate in a longitudinal study that involved two study phases. During the initial phase, children were assessed on their false belief understanding and executive functioning skills, as well as abilities that served as relevant control variables (e.g., vocabulary skills). Two types of naturalistic experiences that relate to false belief development were also measured: parent mental state talk and having child-aged siblings. Six months later, families returned to the lab for the second phase of testing, and all measures were re-administered. Analyses examining concurrent relations among measures showed that at both study phases, there was an interactive effect of executive functioning skills and relevant experience on concurrent false belief task performance. This general pattern of results persisted—albeit in a weaker form—when controlling for consistency in executive functioning skills over time, age, vocabulary skills, and initial theory-of-mind knowledge. Longitudinal analyses revealed that there was an interactive effect of early executive functioning skills and experience on false belief understanding 6 months later, and these effects remained strong and significant when controlling for the relevant variables listed above. Moreover, the reverse longitudinal interactive effect—of later executive functioning and experience on early false belief knowledge—was not significant. Overall, effect sizes associated with the predicted longitudinal interaction were substantially larger than those associated with concurrent interactions. This study’s longitudinal findings offer support for the hypothesis that executive functioning skills influence children’s ability to use relevant experience in the service of false belief concept development. Further, the concurrent pattern of findings suggests that executive functioning skills are also recruited for actively reasoning about other minds in the moment, when children are faced with false-belief-reasoning situations. Alternative theories are discussed, with emphasis placed on taking an integrated theoretical approach to effectively characterize the effects of executive functioning on false-belief reasoning.