Research paper reveals adults are little better than preschoolers at taking the perspective of others

Thu, Sep 28, 2017

Ever been shocked to discover your dinner guest is a staunch Trump supporter?

Dr. Daniel Bernstein says it’s because of faulty false-belief reasoning — and we’re all guilty of it.

A Canada Research Chair in Lifespan Cognition and psychology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), Bernstein studies perspective-taking across the lifespan from ages three to 92.

Today, he and colleagues published a paper revealing that a preschooler’s false-belief reasoning —the ability to ignore their own beliefs and take the perspective of another person — is not far from that of a fully-mature adult.

“It’s been shown that young children ages three or four have difficulty putting themselves mentally in another’s shoes,” said Bernstein. “However, what was surprising is that adults, and in particular older adults, are not much better at taking the perspective of another person.”

This could explain why politics and religion can be such hot-button topics at social gatherings such as family events.

To measure false-belief reasoning, Bernstein and his colleagues tested 266 people at various ages ranging from three to 92 years using the “Sandbox” task. Participants viewed a scenario involving Sally and Ann playing in a sandbox. Sally buries a toy in the sand and then leaves. While Sally is away, Ann digs up the toy and buries it elsewhere in the sandbox. After a brief distraction, participants are asked where Sally will look for the toy when she returns.” 

The answer seems obvious — where she initially buried it.

However, all age groups had difficulty suppressing their own knowledge about the toy’s location when estimating what Sally knew. They would often point not to the initial spot, but to somewhere between the initial (correct) and actual (incorrect) location.

“The ability to take another person's perspective is crucial for meaningful social interactions,” explains Bernstein. “Appreciating that others can have beliefs that differ from our own is an important aspect of social thinking and perspective-taking.”

Bernstein found that even older children and adults made perspective-taking errors. His results highlight the relative similarity in false-belief reasoning abilities at different developmental periods across the lifespan.

Rather than feeling dismayed or alarmed by the results, Bernstein is enthusiastic.

“As a result of this research, we can begin to develop tools to improve perspective-taking and help us become better social thinkers,” noted Bernstein.

Dr. Bernstein’s research paper “False-belief reasoning from 3 to 92 years of age” was published today by the academic journal PLOS One and is available online.

Story by Tatiana Tomljanovic

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