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Development of theory of mind and executive control
Josef Perner and Birgit Lang
Several recent studies have demonstrated a developmental link, in the age range of 3–5 years, between the acquisition of a ‘theory of mind’ and self control. In this review, we consider the existence of such a link in assessing five competing theoretical hypotheses that might help us to understand the nature of this developmental advance: (1) executive control depends on theory of mind; (2) theory of mind development depends on executive control; (3) the relevant theory of mind tasks require executive control; (4) both kinds of task require the same kind of embedded conditional reasoning; (5) theory of mind and executive control involve the same brain region. We briefly describe these theoretical accounts and evaluate them in the light of existing empirical evidence. At present, only account (3) can be ruled out with some confidence.
t around four years of age several intellectual changes take place. Two changes that appear to be specifically related are concerned with the understanding of mental states: ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM) and self control (Executive Function, EF). Theory of mind is the ability to ascribe mental states, such as desires, beliefs, feelings and intentions to oneself and to other people. To know what people want, think, feel and intend enables one to make behavioural predictions about how people will act1. Executive Function is a term for processes responsible for higher-level action control (e.g. planning, inhibition, coordination and control of action sequences) that are necessary in particular for maintaining a mentally specified goal and for bringing it to fruition against distracting alternatives2. An important step in the development of a theory of mind that takes place around the age of 4 yrs is the understanding that one can be mistaken about the world, that is, to understand false belief 3,4 and the distinction between appearance and reality5. Before that age, children have good understanding of how people will act depending on what they want to achieve, and understand that others are happy if they fulfil their wishes but are unhappy otherwise6,7. However, young children appear incapable of understanding that people with a mistaken belief will often take the wrong action in pursuit of their goal. These children therefore do not manipulate others’ behaviour by lying or deception8–10. At about the same age that children outgrow these limitations they also improve markedly on self-control tasks that require suppression of some prepotent response in favour of a new response. An example of this type of task is a cardsorting task in which cards bearing pictures that vary in two dimensions (colour and shape) have to be sorted according to a rule (‘sort by colour’) determined by the experimenter. Younger children are able to sort the cards, but when the rule
is then changed (‘sort by shape’) they tend to perseverate and continue to sort by the old rule, even though they can state the new rule before each trial11. Improvement on these tasks is specifically correlated with the ToM development at this age, even when age and a measure of intelligence is partialled out12–14. Moreover, children with autism and Asperger syndrome who have specific problems with theory of mind have also been found impaired in self-control tasks15–19. In this review, we briefly outline some of the tasks typically used in these studies, provide a summary of the correlations reported for normal development and then present five alternative theories that attempt to explain the observed relationships, and evaluate these theories in light of the available evidence. Tasks for assessing theory-of-mind abilities The most frequently used measure for tapping the changes in theory of mind at around 4 yrs is the ‘false-belief task’3. The standard version (see Fig. 1) involves the unexpected transfer of a desired object, so that the protagonist then has a false belief about the location of that object. To assess children’s understanding of the protagonist’s false belief, they are asked to predict where the protagonist will look for the object. The typical developmental trend is that at 3 yrs almost all children answer wrongly with the actual location (the blue cupboard in Fig. 1) of the object, whereas most children of 4 yrs and older answer correctly (the green cupboard). For the purposes of this review, a particularly interesting variation of the false-belief test is the ‘explanation’ version20 in which children are shown that the protagonist looks for his object in the green cupboard (where he thinks it is) and are then asked why he looks there. Further versions of the false-belief task are listed in Box 1.
PII: S1364-6613(99)01362-5 September 1999
J. Perner and B. Lang are at the Department of Psychology, University of Salzburg, Hellbrunnerstrasse 34, 5020 Salzburg, Austria.
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Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. 3, No. 9,
Automatic inhibition might be employed in infancy. for example. the child’s task is to predict where Max will look for his chocolate (see Box 1 for other versions of the task). September 1999 trends in Cognitive Sciences . As Diamond has systematically shown. The meta-analysis shows that the effect size of these studies is substantial. whereas the remaining three theories suggest in 338 Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. Similarly.) The typical executive-function tasks that pose a severe problem for children at the age of 3 yrs are characterized by the need to exert ‘executive inhibition’ of an interfering response tendency. arguably because the representational strength of the correct strategy weakens and is not sufficient to inhibit the old. So what improves in infancy is better retention of a correct strategy. The component that makes backward digit span (as opposed to forward digit span) an executive task is the need to control the natural tendency to repeat the numbers as they have been rehearsed. The chocolate story. No. a working-memory task that requires the subject to repeat a list of numbers in reverse order. which then interferes with doing the opposite action.Review Perner and Lang – Theory of mind and executive function Fig. in forward order. The task is to do the opposite of what the experimenter does. is to imitate. For instance. How can this relationship between mastery of EF tasks and false-belief task be explained? Theories that explain the EF–ToM relationship The first two theories described below envisage a functional dependency between the development of executive control and ToM. better established search at A. If the experimenter makes a fist the child has to present her flat hand. Although EF tasks comprise quite a range of abilities all those that are developmentally linked to false-belief understanding tend to share with the hand game this need to suppress a prepotent tendency (for other EF tasks see Box 1). a task that tests for the development of theory of mind. the working-memory task used by Gordon and Olson24 requires alternation between different tasks (naming and enumerating objects) and children find it difficult to not follow the natural flow of each task. 3. The correct strategy successfully inhibits the old strategy of searching at location A. Executive inhibition is needed when automatic inhibition21 through high activation of the desired action schema fails. even the youngest infants search correctly in location B when allowed to search immediately26. This can be illustrated on a children’s version13 of Luria’s hand game22. An overview of available studies that investigated the developmental relationship between ToM and EF tasks between the ages of 3 to about 6 yrs is given in Box 2. 9.27. Illustration of a commonly used example of the false-belief task. Automatic inhibition will not help because concentrating harder on the task strengthens not only the desired action but also the tendency to imitate. in which an object is hidden and retrieved a few times from location A and then hidden in location B. Only when infants are forced to delay their search does the old strategy start to dominate. and if the experimenter presents his flat hand the child has to make a fist. The natural tendency however. thereby automatically inhibiting alternative strategies. 1. This is the case when concentration on the desired schema not only strengthens activation of the desired but also of the interfering schema. because concentrating on the task involves concentrating on what the experimenter does. with Piaget’s well-known ‘A–not B’ error in object search25. to enumerate one object after the other without naming each object in between. In this example. This measure of the ‘central executive’ component of working memory correlates strongly with false-belief understanding. Davis and Pratt23 employed backward digit span. 3. It should also be pointed out that these tasks require executive inhibition as opposed to automatic inhibition. (Adapted from Ref.
References a Hogrefe. 59. (1995) Theory of mind and rulebased reasoning Cognit. and they learn on repeated trials that when they happen to point to the empty box they get the reward.34. D. Executive inhibition tasks require an understanding of existing action schemata as causally efficacious. a trick object. In both tasks. J. and Palfai. in the hand game. and Diamond. F.W. J. Y. Dev. and green flowers with the green car target. The test question is: ‘Where does John think that Mary will look for the object?’. Four-year-old children develop such an understanding of mental states as causally effective representations and this explains why mastery of the false-belief task and executive inhibition emerge at the same time. (1983) Development of the appearance–reality distinction Cognit. one needs to realise that there is a tendency to imitate that forces one to do the wrong thing. 15.D. • Memory of own false belief c: the children are asked what they had thought was in the box when first shown. (3) Second-order false belief ... 5. and Wimmer. (1987) Three-year olds’ difficulty with false belief: the case for a conceptual deficit Br. (1988) Children’s understanding of representational change and its relation to the understanding of false belief and the appearance–reality distinction Child Dev. when the ‘colour game’ is played then the yellow cars have to be placed with the yellow flower target.R. The former is a case of misinformation.L.J. John watches the transfer but is not informed that Mary independently finds out that the object has been transferred to location B. the opposite. EF tasks (1) Day and night Stroop task f. J. Children are shown a typical container (e. and Perner.Perner and Lang – Theory of mind and executive function Review Box 1. In both cases it helps to understand that action is causally mediated by internal states. (2) Executive control is a prerequisite for ToM Russell argued that self monitoring (as a part of executive control) is a prerequisite for a rudimentary self awareness35. Then the real content (pencils) is revealed and children can be asked in different ways about the box’s content: • Other’s false belief: the children are asked what another person.b.g. yellow flower) and they are required to place five further cards (e.33. J.. mental states need to be understood as representations with causal power. E. et al. Hong. (3) DCCS card-sorting testh.’: attribution of second-order beliefs by 5.L. on the test trials they can see through a window in the box which box contains the reward and they are asked to point. P. and by Carruthers30 to explain the same coincidence in autism. Children are sitting in front of two boxes. one of which contains a reward. 3. For instance. whereas the latter is not. really and truly?’) and an appearance question (‘What does this look like?’). that is. 567–582 b Perner. 26–37 d Flavell. Psychol. Psychol.R. J. The ‘puzzle of false belief’32 is that holding the false belief makes the holder look in the empty location even though he/she has the goal of looking in the location where the object really is. 483–527 different ways that EF and ToM can be seen as part of a single process. T. 9. The measure of success is whether they point to the empty box. but when they point to the box that contains the reward their competitor gets it. 57.g. Tasks for assessing ToM and EF abilities False belief and related tasks (1) Deceptive container tasks a. (2) ‘Windows task’ g. C. Children are given two target cards with pictures on (e. J. yellow cars and green flowers) according to one of two pairs of rules. J. September 1999 . Zelazo. (1) ToM is a prerequisite for EF Wimmer suggested that with the formation of increasingly sophisticated mental concepts the child gains better understanding of her own mentality and this better understanding gives the child better control of her mental processes and actions28. such as a sponge that looks like a rock: a reality question (‘What’s this. A. Dev. who has not yet seen its real content. 39.. No. Then the rules are changed for the ‘shape game’: cars have to be placed with the car target and flowers with the flower target despite their different colours. S. H. Flavell. J. Nevertheless. (1986) Ignorance versus false belief: a developmental lag in attribution of epistemic states Child Dev. H. This task involves two questions about. Psychol. and Astington. both cases require more than the typical 3-yr old’s understanding that people act in order to get closer to their goal1. (1994) The relationship between cognition and action: performance of children 3-and-a-half to 7 years on a Stroop-like day–night task Cognition 53. (2) Appearance–Reality task d. 9. and Green. H. They are asked about the content of the box and practically all children say ‘Smarties’. 95–120 e Perner.g.H. Wimmer. expected response has to be suppressed. Perner proposed that a common mental factor needs to be understood by 4-yr olds for mastery of the false-belief task and executive-inhibition task31. (1985) ‘John thinks that Mary thinks that. Exp. 437–471 f Gerstad. 339 Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. for example. The children do not know which box contains the reward but are asked to point at random. A. The task requires children to say ‘day’ when the dark picture is shown and ‘night’ when the sunlit scene is shown.to 10-year old children J. 331–349 h Frye. Dev. These states can cause the incorrect actions (actions that do not further one’s goal) because they encode incorrect information or because they are highly activated action schemas (which need to be suppressed). and Wimmer. J. Leekam. After the e training trials. For instance. These two cases are quite different.. 129–153 g Russell. a Smarties box). would think is inside the box. that is. in order to understand that one needs to consciously inhibit this tendency31. Mary is going home while an object is transferred from location A to location B. as something that makes people act. green car. This idea has been applied by Frith29 to explain the co-occurrence of self-control and theory-of-mind problems in schizophrenia.. 125–137 c Gopnik. Child Psychol. The children are told a story about two characters (John and Mary). 10. (1991) The ‘windows task’ as a measure of strategic deception in preschoolers and autistic subjects Br..
483–527 d Gordon. Washington. D. S. Psychol.. Psychiatry (in press) h Perner.. A. 233–253 f Hughes.89 (0. G.31 g Perner et al.68. See Box 1 for descriptions of all tasks.46) d FB explanation. Psychol. Child Psychol. deception.37) 0.01. dimensional-change card-sorting.. 70–83 e Hughes.g. and Smith.49 (0.6 (n=40) Counting and labelling task. (in press) 3. 3. September 1999 .Review Perner and Lang – Theory of mind and executive function Box 2. (1981) Meta-Analysis in Social Research. FB self and other (n=60) A–R. 34. Dev. Erlbaum k Glass.C. physical causality (analogue to DCCS) DCCS card sorting Sorting task in 3 versions 0. J. The numbers in parenthesis indicate the partial correlation coefficients when children’s age has been partialled out. false photograph task A–R. This finding should not be taken as a definitive result but as a clue for further research to determine the true strength of developmental correlations. A. 1997 Age (yrs.4 (n=40) 2. deception FB explanation. 25–31 c Frye. hand game and card sorting) 0. Trick or treat?: uneven understanding of mind and emotion and executive dysfunction in ‘hard to manage’ preschoolers J. 10.3 – 4.8 – 5. DCCS.4 (n=54) 3.1 ToM tasks EF tasks Correlationa Ref. (1995) Theory of mind and rule-based reasoning Cognit. 1995 Experiment 1 Experiment 2 Experiment 3 0.11 (n=57) DCCS card sorting 0.48) h Russell et al.M. One possible systematic factor affecting these correlations is the length of testing session. 340 Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. hand game and card sorting) 0. Ref. M.8 3. C. Exp. DC b Davis. 1998a 3. White.T. 47.59 (0.11 (n=107) 3. (1991) The ‘windows task’ as a measure of strategic deception in preschoolers and autistic subjects Br. Theory of mind and executive function: is there a developmental relationship? (in press) i Russell.27 f 0.10 (n=33) FB prediction Windows task 0. B. A–R.08 and significant non-homogeneity [Q(11)ϭ66. A possible interpretation is that testing children in longer sessions introduces performance factors (e.2 – 5. FB self and other A–R. 10 EF test battery (e. et al. Psychol.R. FB self and other Backward digit span Davis and Pratt.mths) 3. 1995 Frye et al. and Dunn.6 – 4.16) 0. FB explanation. 331–349 j Johnson. H. FB prediction Second-order FB 0.3 – 4.30) e Hughes. k) of dϭ1. McGaw. (1998) Finding your marbles: does preschoolers’ strategic behavior predict later understanding? Dev.7 (nϭ45) Time 2: 4.9 – 6. 1991 3. Indeed.50 (0.5 (n=60) 2. J. Sage Publications Table I.33 (0. and Lang. 1326–1339 g Hughes. FB self and other A–R. Dev. C.06). (1998) Executive function in preschoolers: links with theory of mind and verbal ability Br. C.4 1998 (n=72) Hughes. D. 68.70) i a The correlation coefficients shown are averages of the more detailed correlations reported. A meta-analysis (Ref. (1989) DSTAT: Software for the Meta-analytic Review of Research Literatures. j) of these data shows a strong effect size (the weighted average of observed correlation divided by the SD for each of the studies in the analysis. Abbreviations: A–R. 1998b 0. *Correlation for the DCCS task only.1 – 5. 3–6 April 1997. and Palfai. hand game and card sorting) 5 EF test battery (e. J.V.0 – 6. FB explanation.g. emotion FB FB prediction 6 EF test battery (e.g. B.38 (0. FB.. 16. Dev.L. T. finger tapping and labelling task 6 EF test battery (e.0 – 5. FB prediction. J.3 – 4.g. day/night FB self and other stroop and DCCS card sorting) FB self and other.D. nϭ12. 9. Zelazo. (1997) Inhibitory control and children’s theory of mind. pϽ0. 9. (1998) The relation between acquisition of a theory of mind and the capacity to hold in mind J. J. Paper presented at Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. P.g. C.66 (0.. pϽ0. deception.34)* a A–R. 3. estimated testing duration per session correlated strongly with size of correlation reported (rϭ–0. No.001].7 (n=45) Time 1: 3. (in press) FB self and other. and Olson. and Pratt. false belief. References a Carlson. 0.25) c c c Gordon and Olson. FB prediction.0 – 4. Child Psychol. J.L. appearance–reality.46 b DCCS card sorting. Correlations between Theory-of-Mind and Executive-Function tasks Study Carlson. The link between EF and ToM Table I provides mean correlations (with age partialled out) between ToM and EF tasks used in the studies listed.56 (0. tiredness) that reduce the correlations that are due to developing competencies. Psychol. (1995) The development of children’s theory of mind: the working memory explanation (Special issue: Cognitive development) Aust.34 Hughes et al.3 – 5. B.
There. (3) Executive components in ToM tests Russell et al. This seems to indicate that changes in executive control predict later ToM competence but not the other way round. in contrast to the tasks to which their analysis was originally applied (e. This still leaves work to be done to explain convincingly how the CCC analysis applies to the traditional false-belief task.14 and Hughes and Russell36 suggested that the typical ToM task contains an executive component. in the false-belief task of Fig. 341 Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. No. However. But this is not the case. and if I give you a green flower (antecedent 1). the stipulated rules for the false-belief task (if the question is from Max’s perspective. (4) The cognitive complexity and control (CCC) theory Frye. then you predict that he will go to the green cupboard) are not rules the child is ever told. This explanation is particularly applicable when deceptive behaviour is used as a measure of understanding false belief because deceptive pointing (pointing to where the object is not) contradicts the natural. for example. However. A study by Hughes39 on normally developing children provides some difficulty for the position that ToM is a prerequisite for EF.g. is that EF and ToM are mediated by the same region of the prefrontal cortex18. September 1999 . the intention to look for the chocolate is one antecedent condition (there is no obvious second antecedent) and the actions of looking in either the blue or the green cupboard are the consequences. performance on EF tasks at testing-time 1 correlated with performance on falsebelief tasks at testing-time 2 more strongly (rϭ0. To avoid arbitrary pass–fail criteria. In a longitudinal study. This applies most clearly to the dimensional-change-cardsorting (DCCS) task.38. as well as to the false-belief and similar ToM tasks. Zelazo has argued that such rules conforming to the CCC analysis might play a role in the ‘memory-of-own-false-belief’ task37 (see Box 1). then… (the contingencies reverse: antecedent 1 maps to consequent 2. in which each card shows a picture that has two dimensions (in this example.26). and Hughes’ data can therefore be explained by the plausible assumption that such understanding of the mind appears slightly earlier when applied to the control of one’s own actions (EF task) than when used to predict another person’s (ToM story) likely behaviour in the false-belief task. The general message of this proposal is clear: without executive control there cannot be a ToM and with impaired EF there will be impaired ToM. and Happé17 have suggested that a neurodevelopmental abnormality affecting the white matter in the right hemisphere might account for the ToM and. However. Pennington and Rogers suggested that one possible explanation for why children with autism suffer from executive dysfunction as well as showing a ToM deficit. but if I give you a yellow car (antecedent 2). However. well-practised reflex of pointing to where the object is. and why clinical deficits in one skill are paired with deficits in the other. There are some data showing that children with Williams syndrome and children with Prader–Willi syndrome fail EF tasks but pass false-belief tasks40 (and see reanalysis of their data by Perner and Lang41).. or could learn from previous exposures to the task. but in the standard task (Fig. However. This would provide some evidence against the theory of EF being a prerequisite for ToM. to point to where the displaced object is (perhaps to help the ignorant protagonist find it).g. then you place it with the green car target (consequent 1). the theory that ToM is a prerequisite for EF (1) excludes the possibility of a ToM deficit with adequate EF. Brownell et al. 1) they do not experience Max’s mistake – they have to predict it from background knowledge. colour and shape). if we play the shape game (setting 2). Hence. the EF tasks should yield bimodally distributed data. this evidence is only based on six children and depends on pass criteria for each task that were somewhat arbitrarily set. For example. The authors suggest that a similar analysis applies to other relevant EF tasks. the theory that EF is a prerequisite for ToM (2) excludes the possibility of an EF impairment without ToM impairment. We would. More recently. namely to suppress a natural response tendency. According to Frye et al. it remains unclear what relevance this characterization of the task has in capturing children’s mental processes that would predict their difficulty with the task. 3. On the theory that executive-inhibition tasks require an understanding of the mind’s ability to manipulate causal relationships. 9. (5) Common brain structures Ozonoff.Perner and Lang – Theory of mind and executive function Review which in turn is a necessary requirement for building a ToM. Relevant evidence for the independence of ToM and EF can be found from developmental disorders and from normal development. it might have some plausibility because in that task children first experience their own mistaken reaction. a typical sequence in terms of the embedded conditionals might be: if we play the colour game (setting 1). the perspective taken (child versus story character Max) is the setting condition. Evidence and evaluation The functional-dependence theories Both theories that posit a functional dependence between ToM and EF can explain why there is a correlation between development of these skills. therefore. to some degree. These suggestions can be extrapolated to normal development by proposing that maturation of these brain regions at around 4 yrs of age is responsible for the observed correlations. and if he is looking for the chocolate. By contrast. the DCCS task). Zelazo and Palfai formulated a logical analysis of relevant tasks in terms of embedded conditionals (‘if–if–then’)12. 1. false belief) are expected to be mastered at the same age as specific EF tasks (executive inhibition). it leaves unanswered the question of why specific ToM tasks (e. as the false-belief tasks do. Ellis and Gunter15. in the falsebelief task. which speaks against the assumption that ToM is a prerequisite for EF. and antecedent 2 maps to consequent 1). However. then you place it with the yellow flower target (consequent 2). like to emphasize the need for more extensive evidence of such a dissociation. the EF deficits observed in autism and Asperger syndrome. A non-arbitrary measure of difficulty can be gained by assessing effect sizes of impairment against normal development42.41) than false belief at time 1 correlated with EF tasks at time 2 (rϭ0. the difference in correlations is small and it provides counterevidence only under the assumption that the traditional ToM tests (false-belief tasks) provide privileged access to a child’s ToM. EF tasks assess the presence of this understanding as much as ToM tasks.
For present purposes the clearest evidence that executive problems in the false-belief task cannot account for its correlation with executive function tasks is provided by the fact that the explanation version of the ToM task20. knee-reflex.4% for the DCCS task. Also the two EF tasks both explain highly significant amounts of variance (41.3%. children develop an understanding of mental states as causally efficacious41. Then one of them leaves the room while the other one witnesses how the object is transferred into the other box before he leaves the room. Chimps and children do not themselves see in which box the object is being placed but see an observer watch the process. which are absent in the case of reflex movements.6%. Albuquerque. The test for this understanding is to note in which box the chimp or child will look for the object. but more (17) made two errors. when we look at how performance on these tasks correlates with an EF task (the DCCS task) we find that 342 Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. hand game. This is a critical finding. however.5%) of the variance. Perner1 conjectured that understanding the involuntary nature of the knee-jerk reflex44 requires an understanding of intentions as causally responsible for one’s movement. in the identically looking twin scenario. of correct predictions 0 1 2 No. 21. children who do not understand belief simply guess. 15–18 April 1999. prepotent answer strategy. (Data from Perner. The results in terms of how much of the variance of falsebelief performance can be explained by the other tasks were as follows: with no additional factors. a result that confirms that incorrect predictions are a dominant response tendency among those children who do not understand false belief. well-practised answer to the explanation question. the other to the empty box. As one example. 3.42. But the knee-jerk reflex task explains more than half of all the variance (55. it is quite plausible that both are right in the sense that ToM and EF development are interdependent. USA. Children are asked why one boy is looking in the empty box. This confirms that the children who do not understand false belief have no prevalent response tendency on the explanation tasks. using a ToM task that does not focus on the concept of belief. Preliminary results from this study are presented in Table 1. Recently. speaks in support of both theories (1) and (2): children with autism who are known to have problems with ToM tasks show as strong a deficit on EF tasks18.Review Perner and Lang – Theory of mind and executive function Table 1. In this task the experimenter elicits the knee reflex and asks the children if they moved their leg on purpose. 3–6 yr old children were given two EF tasks (DCCS card-sorting and the children’s version of Luria’s hand game) and two ToM tasks (false-belief and knee-jerk reflex). In summary. The two twins are present when the object is put into one of two boxes.4%). and Lang. at around 4 yrs. B. age and verbal intelligence (measured by the KABC test45) explain one quarter (25. ‘Why did Max look in the empty cupboard for his chocolate?’ Hence their difficulty with the explanation version cannot be a problem of inhibiting a prepotent wrong answer. but only two prediction stories.8%). because the young children who do not understand belief have no standard. none of the available data provide serious evidence against either of the two theories that postulate a functional dependence between ToM and EF. Similarly. An understanding of mental states as causally efficacious is required for executive inhibition. In the observer’s absence the two boxes are switched around. The task is to understand that upon their return the observer will indicate the wrong box as the one containing the object. Some children (12) made only one correct prediction. Call and Tomasello47 developed a non-verbal belief task for chimpanzees and children in which an object is placed into one of two identically looking boxes. This confirms that they have no consistent. Performance on a Theory-of-Mind task No. which shows that the children who provided correct predictions on both of the prediction tests could also consistently explain why one twin is looking in the empty box. After factoring age and verbal intelligence into the model each of the two EF tasks and the knee-reflex task still explain a significant amount of additional variance (DCCS. In our study. 20. we used three different stories involving identically looking characters. What accounts for the developmental relationship between Theory of Mind and Executive Function?. 12. In order to confirm that children are guessing. However. NM. Later both come back in search of the object. children with ADHD are known to have noticeable EF problems42 and a group of children with related problems has been found to be impaired not only on EF but also on ToM tasks43. one goes to where the object is. we tested a prediction made on the basis that. Only very few (5 out of 27) made occasional errors.3% for the hand game).) Most of the available evidence. correlates as strongly as the standardly used prediction version13. Unlike the prediction task. Evidence for executive components in ToM tasks When the developmental link between young children’s difficulty with the false-belief task and their problems with inhibition was first discovered14 the most obvious explanation was that the false-belief task itself requires inhibition. September 1999 . Because of the significance of this finding we are currently investigating it more closely with Robinson and Mitchell’s identically looking twin condition48. of correct explanations 1 2 3 5 4 1 6 3 4 2 4 22 0 4 1 0 Total 17 12 27 Figures shown are the number of children giving correct answers to false-belief tests: prediction version versus explanation version of a tasks with identically looking twins. where the younger children quite consistently answer wrongly (with the location where the object really is). 9. No. In fact. The 17 children who provided consistently incorrect predictions showed a response pattern that would be expected from guessing on the three explanation tasks. J. Although there is now evidence that measures of deceptive ability have a noticeable executive component46 there are several indications that inhibition is not the critical problem in the falsebelief task because versions of the task that have no obvious executive component are no easier than the traditional task41. and executive inhibition is a main exercise ground for a theory of mind at this stage of development. 30. paper presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. Although there is no executive difficulty in this test the children passed it at the same age as they passed the traditional ToM task.
M. these correlations remain substantial even when children’s age and verbal intelligence are partialled out (rϭ0.51. This region might be a good candidate for a physiological account for the observed correlations between ToM and EF tasks.C. significant to the 0. and from the right hole (antecedent 2) to the left exit (consequent 1). which is structurally the same as the DCCS task. (1983) Beliefs about beliefs: representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception Cognition 13. and a ball dropped into the right hole (antecedent 2) passes through to the right exit (consequent 2). 199–230 3 Wimmer. Conclusion We have shown that there is increasingly clear evidence of a specific developmental link between theory-of-mind development and improved self control at around the age of 4 yrs. children can then understand that under setting 1. and Perner. that have associated ToM and EF deficits. the suggested application to the false-belief task in which differences in perspective constitute the two different settings applies perfectly well to Repacholi and Gopnik’s task for testing infants’ understanding of divergent food preferences49. Fletcher et al.g. Unfortunately for the cognitive complexity and control theory. Frye et al. the lack of clear guidelines for applying the suggested ‘if–if–then’ analysis to relevant tasks and the outlined empirical problems lead us to the conclusion that further amendment and modification of this theory is required before it will have sufficient explanatory power. 5. in this problem domain it appears that children as young as 18 months can apply the alleged ‘if–if–then’ structure. Moreover.g. Leekam. Better understanding of this interdependence will also have great practical potential for understanding how to intervene in the rapidly increasing incidence of developmental disorders. The characterization of the false-belief task also involves only one antecedent (intention to look for chocolate). is mastered considerably earlier when only one antecedent is used.50 have shown that the ‘ramp task’. No. We conclude that there must be a developmental link between mastery of false belief and executive inhibition that goes deeper than executive demands of the false-belief task. 9. H. and the exercise of self control is one of the main grounds for building such an understanding. Neuropsychol. For instance. and also correlates with the false-belief task12. Evaluation of the cognitive complexity and control theory In addition to the problems (outlined above) of understanding how the proposed ‘if–if–then’ embedded-conditionals structure is to be applied to the standard false-belief task. It should therefore be as easy as the simplified ramp task but it tends to be at least as difficult as the ramp or DCCS task with two antecedents. When the task is simplified by using only one antecedent. there is also a mismatch between this account and existing developmental data. Better understanding of one’s own mind provides better insights into how to exert self control. the paths cross over so that the bead rolls from the left hole (antecedent 1) to the right exit (consequent 2). J. To what degree this functional interdependence is also based on common brain structures and their maturation remains an open question. significant to the 0. They show high-level ToM deficits but also motor problems15 and are impaired on EF tasks19. S. Dev. antecedent 1 maps to consequent 1.Perner and Lang – Theory of mind and executive function Review the correlation for the explanation (twin) tasks (rϭ0. J. antecedent 1 maps to consequent 2.F. The available evidence shows that the observed correlations go beyond common methodological features of the assessment tasks. such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. J. References 1 Perner. orally taught deaf) who are known to have delayed ToM development equally delayed in their EF competencies? tasks that require conditional reasoning57. and under setting 2. (1988) Assessing frontal lobe functioning in children: views from developmental psychology Dev. both significant to the 0.01 level) is as high as for the prediction tasks (rϭ0. and points to a functional interdependence of ToM and EF. when a flag is raised (setting 1).01 level). H. length of testing session) reduce the true developmental correlations between EF and ToM abilities? • Does the correlation between ToM and EF also exist when understanding of implicit false belief is tested? • Does intensive ToM training increase performance on EF tasks and vice versa? • Are hyperactive children or children with ADHD who have a clear executive-inhibition difficulty capable of solving the false-belief task? Can they do so under medication? • Are there other groups of children with well-developed executive inhibition who are unable to solve the false-belief task? • Are other groups of children (e. the neurophysiological evidence is not yet specific or consistent enough to provide a coherent theoretical picture of the neurological causes of autism16. In the ramp task. (1991) Understanding the Representational Mind. J. (1987) Three-year olds’ difficulty with false belief: the case for a conceptual deficit Br.46 for explanation and rϭ0. Psychol. and Pennington. Evidence of common brain structures There is neuropsychological evidence that the brain regions involved in ToM also serve EF tasks. MIT Press 2 Welsh. There is also some evidence that people with Asperger syndrome have right hemisphere dysfunction15. B. In general. 4. 103–128 4 Perner. a bead dropped into a hole on the left (antecedent 1) rolls down the ramp to the left exit (consequent 1). 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