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Early conversational environment enables spontaneous belief attribution in deaf children

Journal article
Authors Marek Meristo
Karin Strid
Erland Hjelmquist
Published in Cognition
Volume 157
Issue December 2016
Pages 139-145
ISSN 0010-0277
Publication year 2016
Published at Department of Psychology
Pages 139-145
Language en
Subject categories Psychology


Previous research suggests that deaf children who grow up with hearing parents display considerable difficulties in understanding mental states of others, up to their teenage years when explicitly asked in a verbal test situation (Meristo et al., 2007). On the other hand, typically developing pre-verbal infants display evidence of spontaneous false belief attribution when tested in looking-time tasks, although verbal tests are typically not passed before the age of 4 years (Onishi & Baillargeon, 2005). The purpose of the present study was to examine whether deaf children of hearing parents are able to demonstrate spontaneous belief attribution in a non-verbal eye-tracking task. Thirty 4- to 8-year-old, deaf and hearing children, completed a non-verbal spontaneous-response false-belief task and a verbal elicited-response false-belief task. The deaf children were either children with cochlear implants or children with hearing aids. Comparative analyses were also carried out with a previous sample of deaf and hearing 2-year-olds (reported in Meristo, Morgan, et al., 2012). We found that in the non-verbal spontaneous-response task typically hearing children, but not deaf children, were able to predict that a person with a false belief about an object’s location will search erroneously for the object. However, hearing children and deaf children with implants, but not deaf children with hearing aids, passed the verbal elicited-response task. Language development was significantly correlated with both types of false-belief tasks for the whole sample. Our findings strengthen the hypothesis that the emergence of the ability to recognize others’ beliefs needs to be supported initially by very early conversational input in dialogues with caregivers.

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