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Young Children's Attribution of Action to Beliefs and Desires

Karen Bartsch and Henry Wellman
Child Development
Vol. 60, No. 4 (Aug., 1989), pp. 946-964
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development
DOI: 10.2307/1131035
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1131035
Page Count: 19
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Young Children's Attribution of Action to Beliefs and Desires
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Abstract

When and how children understand beliefs and desires is central to whether they are ever childhood realists and when they evidence a theory of mind. Adults typically construe human action as resulting from an actor's beliefs and desires, a mentalistic interpretation that represents a common and fundamental form of psychological explanation. We investigated children's ability to do likewise. In Experiment 1, 60 subjects were asked to explain why story characters performed simple actions, such as looking under a piano for a kitten. Both preschoolers and adults gave predominantly psychological explanations, attributing the actions to the actor's beliefs and desires. Even 3-year-olds attributed actions to beliefs and false beliefs, demonstrating an understanding of belief not evident in previous research. In Experiment 2, 24 3-year-olds were tested further on their understanding of false belief. They were given both false belief prediction and explanation tasks. Children performed well on explanation tasks, attributing an anomalous action to the actor's false belief, even when they failed to predict correctly what action would follow from a false belief. We concluded that 3-year-olds and adults share a fundamentally similar construal of human action in terms of beliefs and desires, even false beliefs.

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