The conceptual underpinnings of pretense: Pretending is not 'behaving-as-if'

Ori Friedman, Alan M. Leslie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


The ability to engage in and recognize pretend play begins around 18 months. A major challenge for theories of pretense is explaining how children are able to engage in pretense, and how they are able to recognize pretense in others. According to one major account, the metarepresentational theory, young children possess both production and recognition abilities because they possess the mental state concept, pretend. According to a more recent rival account, the Behavioral theory, young children are behaviorists about pretense, and only produce and recognize pretense as a sort of behavior - namely, behaving 'as-if'. We review both the metarepresentational and Behavioral accounts and argue that the Behavioral theory fails to characterize very young children's abilities to produce and to recognize pretense. Among other problems, the Behavioral theory implies that children should frequently mis-recognize regular behavior as pretense, while certain regular forms of pretend play should neither be produced nor recognized. Like other mental states, pretense eludes purely behavioral description. The metarepresentational theory does not suffer these problems and provides a better account of children's pretense.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)103-124
Number of pages22
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Concepts
  • Metarepresentation
  • Pretense
  • Theory of mind


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