A developmental shift in processes underlying successful belief-desire reasoning

Ori Friedman, Alan M. Leslie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

25 Scopus citations


Young children's failures in reasoning about beliefs and desires, and especially about false beliefs, have been much studied. However, there are few accounts of successful belief-desire reasoning in older children or adults. An exception to this is a model in which belief attribution is treated as a process wherein an inhibitory system selects the most likely content for the belief to be attributed from amongst several competing contents [Leslie, A. M., & Polizzi, P. (1998). Developmental Science, 1, 247-254]. We tested this model with an 'avoidance false belief task' in which subjects predict the behavior of a character, who wants to avoid an object but who is mistaken about which of three locations it is in. The task has two equally correct answers-in seeking to avoid the location where she mistakenly believes the object to be, the character might equally go to the location where the object actually is, or to the remaining empty location. However, the model predicts that subjects will prefer one of these answers, selecting the object's actual location over the empty location. This bias was confirmed in a series of five experiments with children aged between 4 and 8 years of age. A sixth experiment ruled out two rival explanations for children's biased responding. Two further experiments found the opposite bias in adults. These findings support one selection model as an account of belief-desire reasoning in children, and suggest that a different model is needed for adults. The process of selecting contents for mental state attributions shows a developmental shift between 8 years of age and adulthood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)963-977
Number of pages15
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


  • Belief-desire reasoning
  • Inhibition
  • Selection Processing
  • Theory of mind

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'A developmental shift in processes underlying successful belief-desire reasoning'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

  • Cite this