Can Changes in Inhibitory Control Explain Child-Level Theory of Mind Development?

AbstractA central canon in theory of mind research is that between the ages of three and four a drastic performance difference in children’s understanding occurs. However, the reason for the ‘three to four shift’ has yet to be settled. One account, Theory of Mind Mechanism (ToMM) theory (Leslie, 1994), posits that change in inhibitory power can account for this difference. This is supported by a recent computational implementation of the theory, showing that differences in inhibitory power can account for age differences at an aggregate level (Wang, Hemmer, & Leslie, 2019). However, as Baker et al. (2016) point out, established findings are entirely based on group-aggregated findings, yet computational and developmental processes do not take place in the ‘aggregated mind’. What remains largely unexplored is what happens at the level of the individual child. Here we combine the computational implementation of ToMM with data from Baker et al., 2016, who assessed longitudinal developmental change in Theory of Mind performance by repeated testing of individual child over the three-to-four shift period on standard ‘Sally and Anne’ false belief tasks, to obtain a cumulative record for each child. Specifically, we found that children’s age was not directly informative of developmental change in theory of mind reasoning. Instead, the main contributor to theory of mind performance at the individual learner level is inhibitory power.

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