The role of desire in children's theory of mind

Margalit Ziv, University of Pennsylvania


Children's theory of mind consists of two core mental states: belief and desire. The majority of research has focused on belief, specifically false belief, demonstrating an age-related improvement between 3 and 5 years, However, studying children's understanding of desire, as well as the relation between desire and belief, is important for forming an adequate picture of theory of mind development and determining the relation between children's theory of mind and their actual social understanding. A series of studies investigated two aspects of the role of desire in children's theory of mind. The studies tested the claim that young children fail false belief because they base their belief judgments on desire inferences (Bartsch & Wellman, 1995; Fodor, 1992). Children of 3-, 4-, and 5-years were presented with standard false belief and representational change tasks, and were asked about the agent's desire and belief. The discrepancy between desire and belief responses indicated that desire reasoning cannot account for failure on false belief. Whether desire reasoning is easier than false belief was also examined. A new prosocial conflict-in-desire task was presented to 3-, 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds. They were asked to predict what an agent would do to play with a partner whose desire conflicted with their own. Only 6-year-olds could say that the agent should act in accord with the partner's desire, that is, play what the partner likes. The findings suggest a new explanation of desire reasoning driven from an important difference between belief and desire. Whereas beliefs can be true or false, desires can be fulfilled or unfulfilled. Consequently, a conflict in belief occurs when one belief is true and the other is false. However, a conflict in desire occurs when two desires cannot be fulfilled simultaneously and an inference is required to shift from fulfilling one desire to another. The current studies indicate that desire reasoning cannot explain young children's failure in false belief tasks, that desire is inferred differently from belief, and that certain conflicts in desire can be more difficult than false belief.

Subject Area

Developmental psychology|Cognitive therapy

Recommended Citation

Ziv, Margalit, "The role of desire in children's theory of mind" (1999). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9953625.