Tell a friend, who asked you for a few bucks, that you don’t have any money. Make sure that you give them that “I-would’ve-helped-you-if-I-had-the-money” look. They’ll understand, and if they’re really insistent on borrowing some cash, will move on to bug someone else.
Now, tell a seven-year-old child, who asked you for a cookie, that you don’t have any (which you do). Again, make the same helpless face. Chances are, they’ll either ask again (and then again, just to make sure). If they are really stubborn, then you’re probably going to have a bad day.
It is often remarked that babies possess, at a very tender age, a coveted skill – the ability to spot liars. Have you ever wondered why this is? When is a child old enough to tell when they’re being deceived or lied to?
Let’s delve a little deeper and unravel the mystery of children’s developing minds.
Theory of Mind
In simple words, the Theory of Mind (ToM) is the ability to intuitively understand one’s own mind and the minds of others. A very important aspect in this field is to acknowledge and understand the fact that others’ thinking can be different from yours; as a result, based on what others may think in a given situation, you can infer some useful information to predict their behavior.
Let’s consider a very simple example; when you see your friend taking the car keys off the hook and exiting the room, you can safely assume that they’re going somewhere in their car. This may seem like a very obvious thing to infer, but let me tell you, it is actually far from being so. This is an essential human skill that you develop as a child. A study, published in February 2014, demonstrates that this skill of understanding others’ thinking develops at the age of seven.
Gauging the False Beliefs of Others
This is a crucial test of the theory of mind. It demonstrates the ability to know that what a person believes to be true and subsequently acts on, is not always true in reality. Let me demonstrate this ability with an example. Suppose you have a four-year-old child in your house, who always keeps an Iron Man toy or a barbie doll under their pillow before going to sleep. The child may do this because he/she thinks that there might be a real Iron Man or barbie doll that will come and play with them when everyone else is asleep. As a grown up, you know that the appearance of Iron Man or Barbie is impossible, but the child does not. This shows your ability to identify the false beliefs held by other people.
Kids do not have many of these skills in the early years of their lives. For instance, a two-year-old may not know or realize that their thoughts are different from the true reality of their lives. They don’t understand thoughts as actual ‘thoughts’ that are constantly brewing in their own head. For them, these thoughts may be no different from what they’re seeing in physical reality, according to this study.
An interesting experiment to demonstrate the strategic thinking of the mind…
Psychologists conducted a rather riveting study back in 1983 to test the strategic thinking of kids. A puppet named Maxi entered a room (in the child’s presence), put a chocolate in the cupboard, and left the room. The experimenter then entered the room and moved the chocolate to a new location, such as a drawer. Then, the child is asked where Maxi should look for the chocolate.
Three-year-olds said that Maxi will look in the new location, i.e., the drawer, whereas four-year-olds said that Maxi will look for it in the cupboard, i.e. the place where he had left it. This demonstrates that three-year-olds are not able to discern their own thinking from Maxi’s, whereas four-year-olds do that elegantly.
Developing Sophisticated Mental Skills to Evade Deception
There have been a number of experiments focusing on the development of strategic thinking in children to evade deception by others. In one such experiment, a game of stickers involving two players, a child and an experimenter, was played. Both of the participants were supposed to select one out of 1 to 5 stickers. The rules stated that whoever picked the smaller number of stickers would get to keep all the stickers, whereas if both of them selected same number of stickers, neither would get any stickers.
It was observed that kids younger than 4 years old could not stop themselves from choosing 5 stickers (as they wanted to grab all the stickers immediately, despite the fact that since it was the largest number, they were sure to lose. Interestingly, the older the child participants were, the fewer stickers they chose. The group of seven-year-olds struck gold by repeatedly choosing either 1 or 2, consequently winning all the stickers.
Children with a better working memory are more difficult to deceive. Working memory is associated with various cognitive skills that allow a person to consider the rules and constraints, as well as the potential reward, in order to not deviate from the path that would guarantee their success. Therefore, working memory helps in the formulation of better strategies to counter mental problems, like avoiding deception and understanding others’ thinking.
This is, quite unsurprisingly, related to a child’s age. It has also been seen that most children develop a working memory at the age of seven. Why this sudden addition of a mental skill takes place precisely at the age of seven is still a mystery to researchers.
Next time you successfully fool a child out of their cookie, don’t feel too good about yourself. The child probably isn’t seven yet!