Belief-desire reasoning as a process of selection

Alan M. Leslie, Tim P. German, Pamela Polizzi

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Human learning may depend upon domain specialized mechanisms. A plausible example is rapid, early learning about the thoughts and feelings of other people. A major achievement in this domain, at about age four in the typically developing child, is the ability to solve problems in which the child attributes false beliefs to other people and predicts their actions. The main focus of theorizing has been why 3-year-olds fail, and only recently have there been any models of how success is achieved in false-belief tasks. Leslie and Polizzi (Inhibitory processing in the false-belief task: Two conjectures. Developmental Science, 1, 247-254, 1998) proposed two competing models of success, which are the focus of the current paper. The models assume that belief-desire reasoning is a process which selects a content for an agent's belief and an action for the agent's desire. In false belief tasks, the theory of mind mechanism (ToMM) provides plausible candidate belief contents, among which will be a 'true-belief.' A second process reviews these candidates and by default will select the true-belief content for attribution. To succeed in a false-belief task, the default content must be inhibited so that attention shifts to another candidate belief. In traditional false-belief tasks, the protagonist's desire is to approach an object. Here we make use of tasks in which the protagonist has a desire to avoid an object, about which she has a false-belief. Children find such tasks much more difficult than traditional tasks. Our models explain the additional difficulty by assuming that predicting action from an avoidance desire also requires an inhibition. The two processing models differ in the way that belief and desire inhibitory processes combine to achieve successful action prediction. In six experiments we obtain evidence favoring one model, in which parallel inhibitory processes cancel out, over the other model, in which serial inhibitions force attention to a previously inhibited location. These results are discussed in terms of a set of simple proposals for the modus operandi of a domain specific learning mechanism. The learning mechanism is in part modular-the ToMM-and in part penetrable-the Selection Processor (SP). We show how ToMM-SP can account both for competence and for successful and unsuccessful performance on a wide range of belief-desire tasks across the preschool period. Together, ToMM and SP attend to and learn about mental states.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-85
Number of pages41
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


  • Belief desire reasoning theory of mind development inhibition domain-specificity


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