Do Actions Speak Louder than Knowledge? Action Manipulation, Parent-Child Discourse and Children's Mental State Understanding in Pretense

Dawn Kathleen Melzer, University of Massachusetts - Amherst

This dissertation has been moved to the following series:


In the current study children 3-5 years of age (N = 75) participated in a mental state task to investigate the effect of action saliency on young children's appreciation of mental states during pretend play activities. They also engaged in a parent-child interaction period, including storybook reading and pretend play activities, in order to examine the relation between mental state term utterances and performance on the mental state task. Two actors appeared side-by-side on a television screen, either in motion or as static images; one actor had knowledge of the animal he was pretending to be; the other actor did not have the same knowledge. The actors' behaviors were identical and related to the behavior of the animal, identical and unrelated, or the knowledgeable actor behaved contradictory to the animal's behavior while the unknowledgeable actor behaved appropriately for that animal. Children were asked to select the actor who was pretending to be the animal. Children selected the appropriate knowledgeable actor significantly more often than a non-knowledgeable actor. Older children performed better than younger children. Children's performance was unaffected by whether actors were shown in motion as compared to simply a static image. Children performed most successfully on trials where actors were both engaged in behaviors unrelated to the animal's behavior and poorest when the actor's behavior was contradictory to his knowledge. The mental state utterances of parents and children were correlated with the children's performance on the mental state task. Hierarchical regression analyses revealed parent's mental state utterances used during the parent-child interactions - specifically cognitive terms and modulations of assertion - were predictive of their children's performance on the mental state task. The current study's results support an understanding of the mind in pretend play activities by some children younger than five years of age and this understanding may be influenced by their parents' use of mental state language. Children who do not do well in appreciating that the mind is essential during pretense activities may have difficulty inhibiting responding to action, thus interfering with their ability to maintain focus on the mental state of the pretender.