Published on: 29-Nov-2016
A child reacting to a question posed by NTU Assistant Professor
Setoh Pei Pei (left) in a study that showed that the cognitive abilities
of two-and-a-half year olds are more advanced than previously thought.
(Photo credit: NTU Singapore)
A new study has shown that toddlers as young as two-and-a-half
years old can understand when others have different thoughts from them –
much earlier than the age of four as traditionally thought. This
suggests that children may know when adults are lying or pretending.
finding is made by developmental psychologists Assistant Professor
Setoh Pei Pei from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU
Singapore), Assistant Professor Rose Scott from the University of
California Merced, and Professor Renée Baillargeon from the University
of Illinois, who studied the behaviour of more than 140 children in the
United States aged two-and-a-half years old.
study, published in this month’s edition of the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, the official scientific journal of the
National Academy of Sciences in the United States, used a methodology
known by psychologists as “false belief task”.
researchers used the test to find out whether younger children failed
to show an understanding of what others think, either because false
beliefs - misconceptions due to incorrect reasoning - are too advanced
for children to understand, or because there is too much information for
them to deal with all at once.
traditional false belief task, a child would listen to a story where a
character Sally hides a marble in one of two containers and then leaves.
The marble is then shifted to the other container without Sally’s
When asked where Sally will look
for her marble, younger children pointed to the marble’s new location,
suggesting that they do not understand that Sally holds a false belief
about the marble’s location. Children from around four years old onwards
would point to the marble’s original location.
study by the Singapore and US professors however showed that when the
false belief task is simplified, younger children can answer the
How the study was conducted
modified story of Emma and her apple follows the same format except
that the apple was taken away to an undisclosed location. The children
were asked two additional location questions where they were shown two
object pictures and asked which picture shows the object in question.
This was before they were asked the critical question about where Emma
will look for her apple.
questions contributed to reducing the information-processing demands on
the children, and made it easier for them to answer the critical
question. They also became familiar with the test procedure as they
learned to expect a question to be asked when they were shown two
The results suggest that young
children are aware that others may hold different beliefs from them, but
were not able to demonstrate this understanding due to
See the Annex for a graphical representation of the test developed by the research team.
Study shows cognitive abilities of two-and-a-half year olds more advanced than previously thought
professor Renee Baillargeon said, “When children around the world are
asked what someone with a false belief will do next, it is usually not
until age four or five that they answer correctly. Our study shows that
when the task is made simpler, even two-and-a-half year olds succeed. So
the ability to answer questions about persons with false beliefs is
present very early in development, contrary to what was traditionally
Assistant Professor Setoh who heads
NTU Singapore’s Early Cognition Lab said, “Having the ability to
represent false beliefs means recognising that others can have different
thoughts from us. This ability enables children to recognise when
others are lying, cheating or pretending.
parents believe that children do not understand complicated matters,
they may tell simpler versions of the truth and ‘dumb down’ what they
view as complicated content for kids. Our findings suggest that children
may be able to spot when parents are doing this from as early as
two-and-a-half years old. Parents of young children and early childhood
educators should be aware that children’s early cognitive abilities may
be more advanced than previously thought.”
The study was supported by the US’ National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant.
forward, Assistant Professor Setoh will embark on three new studies in
the Asian/Singapore context related to false belief.
is to find out whether parents in Singapore engage in parenting by
lying (as opposed to truth-telling). Another will investigate the effect
of such a parenting practice on children in the long run.
third study will focus on toddlers’ understanding of social acting,
which is social pretense that people engage in so as to maintain a
positive relationship with their ingroup.
Ang Hui Min
Corporate Communications Office
Nanyang Technological University
Tel: 6592-3557; Mobile: 9112-4765
About Nanyang Technological University
research-intensive public university, Nanyang Technological University,
Singapore (NTU Singapore) has 33,500 undergraduate and postgraduate
students in the colleges of Engineering, Business, Science, Humanities,
Arts, & Social Sciences, and its Interdisciplinary Graduate School.
It has a new medical school, the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, set
up jointly with Imperial College London.
also home to world-class autonomous institutes – the National Institute
of Education, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Earth
Observatory of Singapore, and Singapore Centre for Environmental Life
Sciences Engineering – and various leading research centres such as the
Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute (NEWRI), Energy
Research Institute @ NTU (ERI@N) and the Institute on Asian Consumer
Ranked 13th in the world, NTU has
also been ranked the world’s top young university for the last two years
running. The University’s main campus has been named one of the Top 15
Most Beautiful in the World. NTU also has a campus in Novena,
Singapore’s medical district.
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