Conversations about mental states and theory of mind development in middle childhood: a training study
- Publisher: Elsevier
Despite 30 years of productive research on theory of mind (ToM), we still know relatively little about variables that influence ToM development during middle childhood. Recent experimental studies have shown that conversations about the mind affect ToM abilities, but they have not explored the mechanisms underlying this developmental effect. In the current study, we examined two potential mechanisms through which conversations about mental states are likely to influence ToM: an increased frequency of references to mental states when explaining behavior and an increased accuracy of mental-state attributions. To this aim, we conducted a training study in which 101 children were assigned to either an intervention condition or a control condition. The conversation-based intervention was made up of four sessions scheduled over 2 weeks. Children completed a battery of assessments before and after the intervention as well as 2 months later. The groups were equivalent at Time 1 (T1) for age, family affluence, vocabulary, and executive functions. The ToM group showed an improvement in ToM skills (as evaluated on both the practiced tasks and a transfer task). Mediation analyses demonstrated that the accuracy of mental-state attributions, but not the mere frequency of mental-state references, mediated the positive effect of conversations about the mind on ToM development. Our results indicate that conversational experience can enhance mental-state reasoning not by simply drawing children’s attention to mental states but rather by scaffolding a mature understanding of social situations.
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