The puzzle of early mentalizing: A unitary theory of infants' successes and preschoolers' failures
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Description: Human social interaction and learning depends on making the right inferences about other people’s thoughts, a process commonly called mentalizing, mind-reading, or Theory of Mind. While several decades of research converged on the view that mentalizing was a cognitive achievement, reached at around 4 years of age, the last 10 years has radically changed this view, and innovative new paradigms suggest that even preverbal infants can think about others’ minds. The new developmental data has created one of the biggest puzzles in developmental science. How can infants be mentalizing when years of research has shown that a) preschoolers fail mentalizing tasks and b) mentalizing seems to depend on the development of skills, like inhibitory control, that research suggests infants lack? While several proposals have been advanced to try to solve this puzzle, I argue that none of these accounts offers a satisfactory account of infants’ apparent mentalizing abilities. In a new theory, I propose that the reason why infants appear able to pass false belief tasks is because they lack a competing self-perspective, which would, in older children, create a conflict requiring resolution by inhibitory resources. A self-perspective emerges with the development of cognitive self-awareness, sometime in the second year of life, at which point it leads to competition between perspectives. This theory proposes that motorically immature infants are predisposed to encode events from others’ perspectives, but leaves open the question of whether this encoding of others’ perspectives amounts to a metarepresentation.