Theory‐of‐mind during childhood: Investigating syntactic and executive contributions


  • Burnel Morgane
  • Durrleman Stéphanie
  • Reboul Anne
  • Carré Arnaud
  • Baciu Monica
  • Perrone‐bertolotti Marcela

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Both syntax and Executive Functions (EF) are involved in Theory-of-Mind (ToM) but their contributory roles have mainly been studied separately. Moreover, researchers have mostly administered False Belief (FB) tasks while they may not be representative of all ToM abilities. Studies of adults give valuable information regarding whether syntax and EF are useful for ToM reasoning (i.e., Reasoning account), however, only the study of children brings direct evidence in favor of ToM emergence (i.e., Emergence account). Also, because the ToM tasks used often entail verbal and executive demands, the links observed could mostly result from such confounds (i.e., Expression account). We evaluated ToM, syntactic and EF abilities in 126 children (3-11 y.o.) using a set of ToM tasks with minimal verbal and executive demands. Our goals were to assess (1) the hierarchical contribution of syntax and EF to ToM, (2) whether results previously obtained for FB tasks are representative of ToM in general, (3) whether the ToM-syntax and ToM-EF links are constant (i.e., Reasoning account) or decrease during development (i.e., Emergence accounts). Results of stepwise regression analyses showed a predominant role of syntax over EF to predict ToM abilities. The comparison of results for ToM and FB tasks showed that FB is not always representative of ToM. Finally, there was no moderating effect of age on the syntax-ToM or EF-ToM relations, thus suggestive of the Reasoning account rather than the Emergence account.

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