Toddlers’ social evaluations of agents who act on false beliefs

TitleToddlers’ social evaluations of agents who act on false beliefs
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2022
AuthorsWoo, BM, Spelke, ES
JournalDevelopmental Science
Date Published08/2022

Mature social evaluations privilege agents’ intentions over the outcomes of their actions, but young children often privilege outcomes over intentions in verbal tasks probing their social evaluations. In three experiments (N = 118), we probed the development of intention-based social evaluation and mental state reasoning using nonverbal methods with 15-month-old toddlers. Toddlers viewed scenarios depicting a protagonist who sought to obtain one of two toys, each inside a different box, as two other agents observed. Then, the boxes’ contents were switched in the absence of the protagonist and either in the presence or the absence of the other agents. When the protagonist returned, one agent opened the box containing the protagonist's desired toy (a positive outcome), and the other opened the other box (a neutral outcome). When both agents had observed the toys move to their current locations, the toddlers preferred the agent who opened the box containing the desired toy. In contrast, when the agents had not seen the toys move and therefore should have expected the desired toy's location to be unchanged, the toddlers preferred the agent who opened the box that no longer contained the desired toy. Thus, the toddlers preferred the agent who intended to make the protagonist's desired toy accessible, even when its action, guided by a false belief concerning that toy's location, did not produce a positive outcome. Well before children connect beliefs to social behavior in verbal tasks, toddlers engage in intention-based evaluations of social agents with false beliefs.

Short TitleDevelopmental Science

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CBMM Relationship: 

  • CBMM Funded