Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Research Bulletin: Theory of Mind in Children's Books

As noted in an earlier post, one of the most interesting questions currently facing empirical researchers of the psychology of fiction, is the role that empathy or social comprehension plays during the processing of narrative fiction. One potentially interesting question is whether children's storybooks can aid social development. Two papers have investigated the degree to which storybooks contain information that might relate to a child's ability to understand the minds of others. Kimberly Wright Cassidy and colleagues (1998) found that, in the books read to preschoolers by a group of parents, over 75% contained some language related to internal states, and a third of the books dealt directly with the concept of someone holding a belief that is false (a key component of understanding other minds, which usually develops between the age of 3 and 5 years). Similarly, Jennifer Dyer and colleagues (2000) conducted an in-depth content analysis of 90 books for 3-to-4 and 5-to-6-year-olds, and found that mental-state references were frequent: they occurred once every three sentences or so. This constitutes empirical support for an observation that might have occurred to many, that children's stories are indeed very social in nature. Whether the social content of these stories thus promotes social development in preschoolers is another question, and one that is just now becoming the object of direct empirical study.

Cassidy, K. W., Ball, L. V., Rourke, M. T., Werner, R. S., Feeny, N., Chu, J. Y., Lutz, D. J., & Perkins, A. (1998). Theory of mind concepts in children's literature. Applied Psycholinguistics, 19, 463-470.

Dyer, J. R., Shatz, M., & Wellman, H. M. (2000). Young children's storybooks as a source of mental state information. Cognitive Development, 15, 17-37.

3 comments:

bill benzon said...

I've got a question that relates to theory of mind. Some of the tasks seem very much like those Piaget used to investigate egocentrism in young children. Has anyone in the TOM literature made the connection with the older Piagetian work?

Keith Oatley said...

Yes: thank you Bill, for this question. You are quite right, research on theory of mind can be seen as a development of the tasks Piaget created to investigate egocentrism in young children. The best article I know to trace these links is by John Flavell (2004). Theory of mind development: Retrospect and prospect. Merill-Palmer Quarterly, 50, 274-290. And the abstract is: "This review begins with a brief history from Piagetian perspective-taking development, through metacognitive development, and into the past and present field of theory-of-mind development. This field has included research on what infants and children know about a variety of mental states, on possible causes and consequences of mentalistic knowledge, and on similarities and differences in this knowledge across individuals, cultures, and primate species. The article concludes with some speculations about the future of the field."

bill benzon said...

Thanks, Keith. The TOM literature I've read seemed uninformed about Piaget.

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