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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|Psychology|Experiments|Cognitive therapy

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.