True or false: Do 5-year-olds understand belief?

William Fabricius, Ty W. Boyer, Amy A. Weimer, Kathleen Carroll

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


In 3 studies (N = 188) we tested the hypothesis that children use a perceptual access approach to reason about mental states before they understand beliefs. The perceptual access hypothesis predicts a U-shaped developmental pattern of performance in true belief tasks, in which 3-year-olds who reason about reality should succeed, 4- to 5-year-olds who use perceptual access reasoning should fail, and older children who use belief reasoning should succeed. The results of Study 1 revealed the predicted pattern in 2 different true belief tasks. The results of Study 2 disconfirmed several alternate explanations based on possible pragmatic and inhibitory demands of the true belief tasks. In Study 3, we compared 2 methods of classifying individuals according to which 1 of the 3 reasoning strategies (reality reasoning, perceptual access reasoning, belief reasoning) they used. The 2 methods gave converging results. Both methods indicated that the majority of children used the same approach across tasks and that it was not until after 6 years of age that most children reasoned about beliefs. We conclude that because most prior studies have failed to detect young children's use of perceptual access reasoning, they have overestimated their understanding of false beliefs. We outline several theoretical implications that follow from the perceptual access hypothesis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1402-1416
Number of pages15
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2010


  • False belief
  • Inference neglect task
  • Perceptual access hypothesis
  • Theory of mind
  • True belief

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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