Children's performance on a false-belief task is impaired by activation of an evolutionarily-canalized response system

Thomas Keenan, Bruce J Ellis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

6 Scopus citations


We examine whether children's performance on a false-belief task is impaired by task content that activates an early-developing, prepotent motivational system: predator-avoidance. In two studies (N=46 and N=37), children aged 3-4 years completed variants of a false-belief task that involved predator-avoidance, playmate-avoidance, prey-seeking, and playmate-seeking, respectively. The proportion of correct answers on the playmate-avoidance task (Study 1: 52%; Study 2: 51%) was significantly greater than the proportion of correct answers on the analogous predator-avoidance task (Study 1: 28%; Study 2: 22%). This difference was not an artifact of children generally performing better on playmate stories than on predator-prey stories. The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that activation of the predator-avoidance system generates prepotent response patterns that pre-empt full consideration of the mental states of the prey characters in false-belief stories.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)236-256
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2003
Externally publishedYes


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology

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