Small-scale Deceit: Deception as a Marker of Two-, Three-, and Four-Year-Olds' Early Theories of Mind

Child Dev. 1989 Dec;60(6):1263-77.


This research report summarizes the results of a study into the abilities of 2-, 3-, and 4-year-old children to deceptively lead others into false beliefs, and is intended to help arbitrate a growing controversy as to when young persons first acquire some theory-like understanding of other minds. Utilizing a novel hide-and-seek board game as a context within which to observe children's spontaneous use of deceptive strategies, a total of 50 subjects between the ages of 2 1/2 and 5 were tested. In contrast to the competing findings of others, which are claimed to establish that children younger than approximately 4 suffer a cognitive deficit that wholly blocks them from the possibility of entertaining any sort of contrastive beliefs about beliefs, the results of this study show that even 2 1/2-year-olds are capable of already successfully employing a range of deceptive strategies that both trade upon an awareness of the possibility of false beliefs and presuppose some already operative theory of mind.

MeSH terms

  • Attention
  • Child Development*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Concept Formation*
  • Deception*
  • Discrimination Learning
  • Ego*
  • Female
  • Form Perception
  • Humans
  • Imagination
  • Male
  • Orientation
  • Reality Testing*