KPU Instructor Publishes Study Analyzing False-Belief Reasoning Across Lifespans

Daniel Bernstein and researchers discovered toddlers and adults’ abilities are roughly equal

KPU Psychology Professor, Daniel Bernstein. (kpu.ca)

In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, protagonist Atticus Finch tells his young daughter Scout that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Daniel Bernstein, a psychology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and Canada Research Chair in Lifespan Cognition, conducted a study which sought to investigate that same premise.

After receiving approval from the Research Ethics Board at KPU and Simon Fraser University, Bernstein and a team of researchers conducted a study on “false-belief reasoning,” which Bernstein says is “the ability to appreciate that people can hold mistaken beliefs about the world.”

The study, published on Sept. 28, reads, “We tested 266 individuals at various ages ranging from three to 92 years on a continuous measure of false-belief reasoning (the Sandbox task). All age groups had difficulty suppressing their own knowledge when estimating what a naïve person knew.”

Bernstein explains the “Sandbox task” method with this analogy: there are two girls, Sally and Ann, playing in a sandbox. Sally puts a specific object in location #1 and then leaves. While Sally is gone, Ann removes that object and places it in location #2, which is still in the sandbox. Sally then returns to the sandbox, and participants of the study had to guess where Sally would look for the object.

Bernstein and his researchers could then measure the errors toddlers and adults make, in which location #1 is the correct response, and location #2 was incorrect. Participants, however, could respond by pointing to anywhere in the sandbox. This allowed researchers to measure responses on a continuum rather than by strictly correct and incorrect options. By doing this, they found that adults typically made the same kinds of mistakes that toddlers do.

One explanation for these results is that preschoolers have difficulty with false-belief reasoning. Therefore, they make errors. While adults comprehend the concept, Bernstein says that “it doesn’t always mean they use [their understanding of false beliefs] appropriately.”

Bernstein’s study was the first of its kind. Other studies have looked at false-belief reasoning from the perspectives of one or two age groups, while this one compared it in preschool children, school age children, younger adults, and older adults. Researchers wanted to know what happens to a person’s false belief reasoning “across the lifespan,” according to Bernstein.

Initially, he got into psychology because he “wanted to understand how we think—what makes people tick,” and generally how the human brain works.

In 2009, after minor earthquake tremors occurred in L’Aquila, Italy, the Italian government asked a group of scientists and one government official to determine the possibility of a major earthquake occurring. The scientists, citing a lack of available information, determined that they could not ascertain whether a major earthquake would strike. Several days later, a major earthquake struck and killed over 300 people.

The scientists and government official involved were put on trial and found guilty for failing to adequately warn the public of the impending earthquake. They were imprisoned and fined eight million euros. The conviction was overturned two years later.

Bernstein says that this is a real-world example of false-belief reasoning because the Italian government was aware of the eventual outcome of the disaster and assumed that the scientists should have known enough to predict the earthquake. However, due to the fact that, at the time, the only data the scientists had to go off was from a few tremors, predicting the earthquake was impossible.

“When you have privileged knowledge of an outcome … you might think that others should see it or know it, but that doesn’t mean that they see it or know it,” Bernstein says. “[People] should be mindful of these kinds of errors—egocentrism essentially—that when you know something that I don’t, [you’ve got to] take that into account when you’re trying to talk to [someone]. Just because you know something doesn’t mean that others know.”

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