Commentary on Fabricius, Gonzales, Pesch, Weimer, Pugliese, Carroll, Bolnick, Kupfer, Eisenberg, and Spinrad (2021). Perceptual Access Reasoning (PAR) in Developing a Representational Theory of Mind.

About the Author
Karen Bartsch

Psychology Department
University of Wyoming

Karen Bartsch (PhD, U. Michigan) is Professor of Psychology at the University of Wyoming who studies children’s developing social cognition. Through experimental methods and analyses of natural language, she has investigated the development of theory of mind, exploring how and when children acquire and use an understanding of belief. 

Perceptual Access Reasoning: Expanding Perspectives on Belief Concept Development

After decades of research on the development of theory of mind (ToM), it is remarkable that we are still debating about when children acquire the key concept of representational belief. In Perceptual Access Reasoning (PAR) in Developing a Representational Theory of Mind, Fabricius, Gonzales, Pesch, et al. (2021) present a tour de force challenge to the widely accepted view that belief understanding is achieved in the preschool years (e.g., Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001) or even in infancy (e.g., Onishi & Baillargeon, 2005). Advancing the provocative claim that early success on false belief reasoning tasks reflects not competence, but merely performance due to task factors (a twist on the more familiar attribution of children’s failure to task factors), this Monograph inspires reflection on the general wisdom of stepping back for broader perspectives on development.

Developmental psychologists have long regarded perspective-taking as essential to optimal functioning and social interaction (e.g., Piaget, 1929; Flavell et al., 1968). For decades, researchers have studied more specifically how and when children come to understand the concept of belief, though, as Fabricius et al. (2021) note, primarily by assessing reasoning about false belief. Young children’s emergent ability to reason appropriately about false belief (e.g., Bartsch & Wellman, 1989; Wimmer & Perner, 1983) has led to consensus that children typically acquire belief understanding in the preschool years (e.g., Wellman et al., 2001). Given a standard false belief task, a 4-year-old’s prediction that a person will look for an object where she left it, instead of where it has been newly transferred, unseen by the searcher, is widely regarded as evidence of a representational ToM (e.g., Wellman, 1990; 2014). False belief tasks are considered “gold standard” because they ensure that a child’s prediction is “constrained to the realm of the other person’s beliefs” (Wimmer & Perner, 1983, p. 106) and does not simply reflect the child’s own view of reality.

In their Monograph, Fabricius et al. (2021) draw on years of research (e.g., Fabricius, Boyer, Weimer, & Caroll, 2010; Fabricius, & Imbens-Bailey, 2000) to challenge the mainstream characterization of belief understanding development, contending that supporting evidence is flawed in its singular reliance on the false belief paradigm. The Monograph offers the most comprehensive defense to date of the view that a representational ToM is not acquired until middle childhood. Fabricius et al.’s argument begins with the insight that we must broaden our perspective on what constitutes relevant evidence of belief understanding to include true belief, along with false belief, reasoning (also to use other task modifications such as no-belief and three-option tasks). They then provide qualitative and quantitative reviews of published literature, studies with new empirical data representing over 500 children, and tests of a new measure of belief reasoning, contending that each affords results consistent with later, rather than earlier, acquisition of belief understanding. Fabricius et al. also note a host of findings in the broader literature consistent with middle childhood advances in ToM, including developments in awareness of thinking (e.g., Flavell, Green, & Flavell, 1995), reasoning about emotions arising from false beliefs (e.g., Harris, de Rosnay, & Ronfard, 2014), and use of belief information in persuasion (e.g., Bartsch, London, & Campbell, 2007).

Publication of this Monograph decades after the first studies of children’s belief reasoning attests to scholars’ continuing interest in, and fierce debate about, this important issue. Fabricius et al.’s (2021) systematic argumentation and analyses warrant, and will elicit, thorough scrutiny. In this short commentary, I will reflect on the general aim of the project–to advance scholarship by promoting a broader perspective on what counts as relevant–and its application to future directions.

Fabricius et al. (2021) maintain that a child who understands belief as a representation should be able to reason sensibly about both true and false beliefs (e.g., in a true-belief task, the child should correctly predict an actor’s search for the object she has hidden at one location at the object’s new location if the searcher has witnessed the transfer). This expansion of what counts as relevant phenomena is significant because, intriguingly, just as children begin to pass false belief tasks, they begin to fail true belief tasks (e.g., Fabricius et al., 2010), not passing both until middle childhood. The U-shaped trajectory of true belief reasoning is uniquely predicted by the PAR account, distinguishing it from traditional ToM theories (e.g., simulation, Harris, 1992; theory-theory, Gopnik & Wellman, 1992; modularity, Leslie, 1987, etc.). Limited to PAR, 4- to 7-year-olds do not yet understand mental representation and instead rely on two rules, one linking perceptual access to knowing and lack of perceptual access to not knowing (although “knowing” does not involve representation), another linking knowing to correct action and ignorance to incorrect action; use of these rules is shown to account for children’s reasoning on true and false belief tasks.

Fabricius et al. (2021) offer a detailed, though still preliminary, account of PAR that is likely to provoke responses from consensus-view “boosters” and “scoffers” (Chandler, Fritz, & Hala, 1989). Intuitively, it is hard to conceive of a 6- or 7-year-old with no conception of mental representation (but perhaps this intuitive challenge comes to only those of us who are steeped in traditional theories and false belief veneration). In this regard, further explication of the PAR conception of non-representational “knowledge” may be helpful. Fabricius et al. state that children aged 4 to 7 do not “understand that someone can draw inferences or conclusions that go beyond what the person directly perceives” (p. 18). Imagine a 6-year-old girl who watches her uncle put on a bear costume to chase after the girl’s twin brother, who runs away crying and hides in a closet. Limited to PAR, the girl can only comprehend that her brother could see a bear and thus “know” (but not as a representation) that there is a bear. She cannot, on this account, understand that her brother cries and hides because he has, in his mind, a representation of a bear, perceived as a real bear. According to Fabricius, et al. (p. 18), “…in PAR there is no attribution of memory to the knower once the situation changes and perceptual contact with the situation is lost.” So, when the girl’s brother emerges from the closet and sees his uncle peeling off the bear costume, the girl cannot attribute to her brother an inference that the perceived bear was in fact their uncle or even a memory related to the previous event.

To be sure, from decades of research on achievements such as object permanence and conservation, we know better than to succumb to mere intuition. And, of course, other accounts of ToM development are not without their own counter-intuitive implications.

In the wake of Fabricius et al.’s (2021) exposition on PAR cognition, two directions for future scholarship—both seeking broader perspectives—will usefully complement this contribution. One concerns the need for longitudinal research, the other for attention to children’s real-life engagement in reasoning about perceptions, beliefs, and actions in everyday activities and interactions.

In relying so far on data reflecting mostly cross-sectional comparisons, Fabricius et al. (2021) acknowledge the need for more longitudinal data. Besides testing the PAR portrayal of development at the individual level, such data might help identify the mechanism(s) of development, an issue still open to speculation. For instance, Fabricius et al. toy with the possibility that the two PAR rules are constructed independently, also recommending that researchers who wish to understand the construction of PAR between ages 2 and 6 should examine the influences of “parent mental state talk, introspection, theorizing, language development, executive function, strategy awareness, social experiences, and culture” (p. 134). They also discuss various possible mechanisms underlying transition into and out of PAR, suggesting, for instance, that pre-PAR reality-focused children may notice associations between people’s judgments and comments about an object’s location (e.g., p. 122, “I know where it is. I put it in the drawer”). Whether the potential mechanisms for transitioning within PAR, or into and out of that phase, are similar or related in some way is not yet clear. Consider though, as a comparison, how theory-theory hypothesizes a general mechanism operating throughout development, such that experience of anomaly, perceived through a child’s current theory, eventually triggers conceptual change and theory revision (as in the construction of the concept of belief, e.g., Gopnik & Wellman, 1992). Is there any such general mechanism associated with PAR, and, if not, will more than one theory be needed to account for changes at different points? Longitudinal data that speak to PAR predictions for individual trajectories may contribute to such discussions.

Given the PAR account’s reliance on data from structured interview tasks, a second complementary perspective will consider children’s behavior in real conversations and contexts. As discussed in the Monograph, some researchers contend that the true belief task questions are so simple and unlike normal conversation that older children may suspect interviewers of trickery and thus respond incorrectly (e.g., Oktay-Gür & Rakoczy, 2017), a view supported by studies showing that modifications of pragmatic task factors eliminate errors in 4- to 7-year-olds (Rakoczy & Oktay-Gür, 2020). When judging whether a child’s utterance reflects belief understanding—in a structured interview or an argument with a sibling—researchers often step back to consider the pragmatics of the context. For instance, in studies of natural language, children’s use of the phrase “know what?” is typically coded as a conversation starter, not a genuine reference to a cognitive state (e.g., Shatz, Wellman, & Silber, 1983). Other utterances are viewed as meaningful references to mental states, as when a 3-year-old said, “It’s a bus—I thought it was a taxi.” (Bartsch & Wellman, 1995, p. 53, cited in the Monograph, p. 95).

But according to the PAR account, such utterances presumably reflect not an understanding of belief but a more limited, non-representational conception of knowledge. An interesting question is what the mention of “taxi” signifies in such an exchange. Where does it come from? What does it tell us about the child’s thinking about his own past thoughts? How does PAR explain it? The Monograph devotes an entire chapter to children’s talk about beliefs as elicited in structured explanation tasks, but it will be important to further explore such questions from the perspective of both structured task responses and children’s everyday reasoning, considering how both may be influenced by conversation and context dynamics. Language data reflecting everyday interactions could also inform construction of aspects of PAR theory, such as Fabricius et al.’s proposal of a transactional account of development in which children and parents “co-construct concepts of mental states” (p. 22), with parents helpfully labeling their children’s mental states and thus facilitating introspection.

Does when children acquire an understanding of representational belief really matter? Fabricius et al. (2021) warn readers that parents and teachers should not be misled into expecting too much too early. Researchers, however, are keen to identify in children the earliest signs of understanding and the mechanisms by which change occurs throughout development. A systematic dive into the weeds, capturing the details of children’s reasoning in a variety of structured situations—as modeled in this Monograph—is necessary to continue the dialectic conversation that advances knowledge about any important cognitive development. Stepping back, as Fabricius et al. have done, to attain a broader perspective on children’s reasoning on an expanded set of tasks, is necessary to advancing knowledge, just as stepping back now to view the project from the perspectives of longitudinal development and everyday interaction will bring us closer to a characterization of belief development that addresses the interests of parents and researchers. 


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