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Three -year -olds' reasoning about deceptive objects: Can actions speak louder than words?

Monica R Sylvia, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The appearance-reality distinction refers to the understanding that objects can have misleading appearances that contradict reality. Traditionally, studies investigating children's ability to make this distinction have used a verbal-based task that requires children to answer two questions regarding the appearance and reality of a target object whose appearance has been altered. In general, these studies have found that children are not successful in this task until 4–5 years of age. ^ The purpose of the current study was to investigate three different hypotheses regarding why 3-year-olds fail the traditional verbal-based task in order to determine whether their poor performance truly represents an inability to distinguish appearance from reality. In Experiment 1, the hypothesis that 3-year-olds fail the traditional task simply because they are unfamiliar with the property-distorting devices typically used to alter the appearances of target objects, rather than an inability to distinguish appearance from reality, was examined. Experiments 1 and 2 also examined the hypothesis that 3-year-olds' failure in this task may be due to an inability to assign conflicting, dual representations to a single object. Finally, the role of the language used in making the appearance-reality distinction also was examined in both experiments. In this case, the hypothesis that 3-year-olds may be able to distinguish appearances from reality in an action-based, but not verbal-based task, was evaluated. In Experiment 1, all of this was done using a property-distorting device typically used in traditional appearance-reality studies, whereas a completely new method for altering the appearances of objects was used in Experiment 2. ^ No supporting evidence for the familiarity or dual representation hypotheses was found in either experiment, however, children in both experiments performed better on an action-based task than on two verbal-based tasks. Children went from answering the traditional appearance-reality questions on the basis of misleading perceptual information to overriding this misleading information in an action-based task. Together, these results provide evidence that 3-year-olds have some competence in distinguishing appearances from reality that is masked by the language demands of the traditional verbal-based task. ^

Subject Area

Developmental psychology|Experimental psychology|Cognitive psychology

Recommended Citation

Sylvia, Monica R, "Three -year -olds' reasoning about deceptive objects: Can actions speak louder than words?" (2002). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3068597.