Evolution of the False-Belief Test: Where it all began

Why are false belief tests used as the only theory of mind tests? Because of an article written in 1978 in response to Premack and Woodruff’s ariticle “Does the Chimpanzee have a ‘Theory of mind'” called “Beliefs about Beliefs” written by Daniel Dennett. It was published in a section called: “Commentary/Cognition and consciousness in nonhuman species.”

From there, psychologists decided to test the idea Dennett had to test theory of mind: the false belief. It went from an article in a section on “cognition and consciousness in nonhuman species” to humans, and then to particular autistic humans who do not have it where the majority of research has stuck with it.

In a textbook that I am reading right now for a Special Education class, the language it uses says theory of mind is a fact and autistic people have mindblindness (or the lack of theory of mind).

But here’s the thing: the false-belief test is not natural. Sally, a puppet, comes in and places a marble in box A and leaves just as Sally, another puppet, comes in. Once Sally is out of the room, Anne switches the marble from box A to box B. Sally comes back in and the child is asked, “Where will Sally look for the marble?” This is not a natural environment that a child would be in.

The reason I bring this up is that Dennett criticizes Premack and Woodruff’s tests of the chimpanzee’s theory of mind by pointing out how unnatural of an environment it was (the phrase he uses is how “artificial” it was). He said that by putting a chimpanzee into an unnatural environment, the unnatural environment is possibly the factor that created of the theory of mind.  Would that same chimpanzee have a theory of mind in its natural environment?

I don’t know what the point is that I am trying to make here except that theory of mind tests are flawed because they are based on a possible test developed by Dennett.  But, they ignored everything he said about the need for a natural environment and put his test into the same artificial environment that inspired him to write this article.


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