When representations conflict with reality: the preschooler's problem with false beliefs and "false" photographs

Cognition. 1990 Apr;35(1):41-68. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(90)90036-j.


It has been argued that young preschoolers cannot correctly attribute a false belief to a deceived actor (Wimmer & Perner, 1983). Some researchers claim that the problem lies in the child's inadequate epistemology (Chandler & Boyes, 1982; Wellman, 1988); as such, it is specific to the child's theory of mind and no such problem should appear in reasoning about nonmental representations. This prediction is tested below in the "false photograph" task: here an actor takes a photograph of an object in location X; the object is then moved to location Y. Preschool subjects are asked: "In the picture, where is the object?" Results indicate that photographs are no easier to reason about than are beliefs. Manipulations to boost performance on the photograph task proved ineffective. Further, an explanation of the failure as a processing limitation having nothing to do with the representational nature of beliefs or photographs was ruled out. It is argued that young children's failure on the false belief task is not due to an inadequate epistemology (though they may have one) and is symptomatic of a larger problem with representations.

MeSH terms

  • Child, Preschool
  • Concept Formation*
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Discrimination Learning
  • Ego*
  • Female
  • Form Perception*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Orientation
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Problem Solving
  • Reality Testing*