Hold the rose-coloured glasses: toddlers understand much more about false beliefs than parents and scientists previously suspected. A Canada-U.S. research team has discovered that very young children absolutely comprehend that other people believe things that aren't true.
"Children as young as 15 months old understand that other people's actions might depend on their false beliefs," says Kristine Onishi, a McGill University psychology professor in Montreal, who coauthored a paper on the topic with Renée Baillargeon, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois (and a McGill graduate).
Indeed, in the April 7 edition of Science, the researchers counter recurring scientific theories that young children do not understand false beliefs. The scientists obtained their findings by presenting infants with an actor who played with a toy and hid it in a box to verify their understanding of false beliefs.
Onishi says an every day situation can easily illustrate her findings: Imagine a scenario where two brothers hide a batch of cookies together in the cabinet. What happens next? The older brother, Vincent, goes out to play, while the younger boy, Josh, eats all the cookies. Does the older brother, Vincent, come back to look for the cookies? "Our research suggests that even a 15-month-old child could understand Vincent would look for cookies even though there are none left," explains Onishi.
Simply put, children understand more than just what they see and they can think about unseen motivations or causes. "Our findings will provide parents and educators a better understanding of how children think," says Onishi. "Kids are actively trying to make sense of the things they see others do. To some degree, children even think about what others can see, what others think and what others believe."
"These findings," Onishi continues, "provide promising avenues for scientists examining autistic children or studying how animals think."