Professor John Flavell

"The Development of Children's Knowledge About the Mind"

by Karen Coombs, Teacher - Center A.M.
The Bing Times - June 1994

Professor John Flavell of the Stanford University Department of Psychology recently addressed the Bing community as part of the ongoing Distinguished Lecture series held at Bing Nursery School. Professor Flavell is an internationally recognized developmental psychologist who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences just two days before this lecture. He has been conducting research at Bing for the past eighteen years.

Professor Flavell studies theory-of-mind research dealing with children's cognitive development. He began by discussing a research project called "The False Belief Task" which was instrumental in launching his field and was conducted at Bing. A child was shown a Band-Aid box and asked to guess what might be inside. Most often, of course, the child would guess "Band-Aids." The researcher would then show the child a small doll that was actually inside. The child was then asked to imagine that a friend was being asked to guess what was inside the Band-Aid box. What would the friend say when asked what was inside? The child would most often respond that the friend would say that Band-Aids were in the box. The researcher would then ask the child to remember back to when she herself first saw the box of Band-Aids a short time before. When asked to recall what she first thought was inside, the child would most often respond, "a doll."

These sorts of results provide some insight into children's mental states. Theory-of-mind research deals with all the various mental states: perceptions, emotions, desires, beliefs, knowledge, thinking, etc. These mental states are linked to each other, as well as to perceptions and to actions or behaviors experienced by the child. What children understand about the mental world depends largely upon their age.

Infants: Babies from 3-5 months look with interest at people and objects. By older infancy, 9-12 months, a triangle relationship develops between themselves, the other person and the object. The infant begins to communicate a sense of "aboutness" — that people are about things "out there." Older infants begin to notice the relationship between people and to what these people are paying attention. They realize that objects have names and what a person is naming depends upon what they're looking at and not what the infant is looking at. Not only do they realize that a person is looking at something, but they also sense that the other person is having a visual experience while looking at something.

Ages 2-3 years: The child begins to clearly understand three mental states: Perceptions — the child realizes that another person sees that which is in front of his eyes and not necessarily what the child herself can see. Desires — the child realizes that if someone wants something, they'll try to get it. They also realize that if they don't get it, they'll be frustrated or unhappy. Emotions — the child can distinguish between positive and negative emotions.

Ages 3 1/2-4 years: The child 's mental representational conception of the mind develops. In other words, the mind contains representations, or models, of the world. People act on these mental models, or beliefs, rather than on how the world really is.

The concept of beliefs is a difficult one for preschool children. Returning to the Band-Aid box study, we realize that having seen the Band-Aid box, the child forms a mental impression, "Band-Aids," and then verbalizes it. As soon as she sees what the reality is, a doll, it completely overwrites her previous belief.

Another difficult concept for preschool children is that of the appearance/reality distinction. To illustrate this concept in a research situation a child is shown a toy boat which is white. The researcher then puts it back and forth behind a red filter a few times to show the child how it looks. The researcher then leaves the boat behind the red filter and asks the child, "What color is the boat, really and truly? Is it really and truly red or is it really and truly white?" The child most often responds, "red." In both of the above cases, ages 3-4 are a transitional time for children in the development of these concepts. In both situations the child must understand that their visual or mental representation is different from the reality.

Professor Flavell's most recent research has dealt with what children know about what goes on in the mind in the here and now. He shared the following information:

What Preschoolers Know About Thinking

  1. It's a human/animate activity.
  2. It's an internal, mental activity.
  3. One thinks about things — present or absent, real or imaginary.
  4. Can distinguish thinking from some other psychological activities such as seeing, touching, talking, knowing.
  5. Preschoolers will sometimes infer that another person is thinking if there is strong behavioral/situational evidence for mental activity.

What Preschoolers Don't Know About Thinking

  1. They greatly underestimate the amount of mental activity that goes on in people.
  2. They may not assume that anything is going on in another person's mind even if the person is known to be looking at something, listening to something, reading, or talking to someone.
  3. Even when they do infer that someone is thinking, they tend to be poor at inferring from available evidence what the person may be thinking about.
  4. They tend to have a poor understanding of attentional focus and attentional limits, perhaps conceiving of the mind as more like a lamp than a spotlight.
  5. Foregoing difficulties are also very evident when preschoolers are asked to report their own mental activity rather than that of another person. That is, they tend to be very poor introspectors.

Professor Flavell cited several research experiments to illustrate the above points. One research project involved 5 year olds in which the researcher says to the child, "I'm going to ask you a question but I don't want you to say the answer out loud. Keep it a secret. Most people in the world have toothbrushes in their houses. They keep their toothbrushes in a special room. Now, don't say it out loud - which room in your house has your toothbrush in it?" When this part of the experiment was completed the child was moved to another chair and asked, "Just a moment ago when you were in the other chair, was your mind doing anything? Were you thinking about anything or having any thoughts?"

Some children responded, "No." Those children who said "Yes" were asked what they had been thinking about. They reported that they had been thinking about objects in front of them that were visible at the time. None reported anything having to do with toothbrushes.

Professor Flavell's theory of mind research seems to imply that children don't act as though they have an ongoing mental life. Children also do not seem to realize that other people have thoughts or preoccupations on their mind, especially if these people don't clearly look like they are thinking. This lack of understanding about human thought processes may interfere with the child's full sense of self. Children may view themselves and others in the same way as adults view an animal, who often appear to have an absent inner life. Professor Flavell hopes that in the future research on theory of mind will help us to better understand and treat autistic children, who probably do not have a theory of mind.

On the occasion of this lecture, Mrs. Jeanne Lepper, Director of Bing Nursery School, presented Professor Flavell with a plaque which read as follows:

"Professor John Flavell — in honor of 18 years of research at the Bing Nursery School, Stanford University and his pioneering work on children's theories of mind. April 27, 1994."