False belief in infancy: a fresh look

Dev Sci. 2014 Sep;17(5):647-59. doi: 10.1111/desc.12148. Epub 2014 Mar 25.


Can infants appreciate that others have false beliefs? Do they have a theory of mind? In this article I provide a detailed review of more than 20 experiments that have addressed these questions, and offered an affirmative answer, using nonverbal 'violation of expectation' and 'anticipatory looking' procedures. Although many of these experiments are both elegant and ingenious, I argue that their results can be explained by the operation of domain-general processes and in terms of 'low-level novelty'. This hypothesis suggests that the infants' looking behaviour is a function of the degree to which the observed (perceptual novelty) and remembered or expected (imaginal novelty) low-level properties of the test stimuli - their colours, shapes and movements - are novel with respect to events encoded by the infants earlier in the experiment. If the low-level novelty hypothesis is correct, research on false belief in infancy currently falls short of demonstrating that infants have even an implicit theory of mind. However, I suggest that the use of two experimental strategies - inanimate control procedures, and self-informed belief induction - could be used in combination with existing methods to bring us much closer to understanding the evolutionary and developmental origins of theory of mind.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition*
  • Concept Formation*
  • Culture*
  • Deception
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior / psychology*