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Siblings get boost in mental knowledge.

Brothers and sisters do far more than torment one another and vie for parental affection. A new study suggests that 3- to 5-year-old siblings, perhaps through their cooperative play, inadvertently help each other grasp a mental concept that sets the stage for understanding deception and making moral distinctions.

Children with two siblings achieve an understanding of false belief -- the knowledge that someone can be misled or misinformed about the nature of an object or situation -- earlier than those with one or no siblings, a team of British psychologists reports in the August CHILD DEVELOPMENT. Older and younger siblings in the 3- to 5-year-old range display comparable skills at detecting false beliefs, they assert.

"Children engage more frequently in creative social role-taking with siblings than with anyone else," write Josef Perner of the University of Sussex in Brighton and his coworkers. "Pretend play is perhaps our best candidate for a cooperative activity that furthers the eventual understanding of false belief."

Much research now indicates that a major shift in understanding beliefs, intentions, and other aspects of mental life occurs in the preschool years. Some investigators, including Perner, suspect that children construct "theories of mind," much as scientists fashion theories to account for natural phenomena (SN: 7/17/93, p. 40).

One school of thought views children's comprehension of mental states as an innate capacity; another sees it as the by-product of a maturing general ability to reason in healthy kids.

The sibling findings of Perner's group suggest that, if an innate tendency to theorize about mental states exists, it gets triggered at different times in children, depending on the number of siblings in the home.

The researchers first studied 76 children, half between 3 and 4 years old, half between 4 and 5 years old. Of that number, 22 were only children, 42 had one brother or sister, 11 had two siblings, and 1 had three siblings.

An experimenter told each child a false-belief story enacted with dolls. Half the youngsters heard about a character named Max, who puts some chocolate in a cupboard and goes outside to play. His mother then puts the chocolate in a different cupboard. When Max decides to come in and eat the chocolate, the researcher asked the children, "Where will Max look for the chocolate?"

The remaining children heard a similar version of this story, in which Max leaves the house and tells his brother Sam where he mistakenly thinks the chocolate can be retrieved. An experimenter then asked, "Where will Sam look for the chocolate?"

About three-quarters of the 4-year-olds in the study answered these questions correctly, compared to 40 percent of the 3-year-olds. Three-quarters of those with two or more siblings also answered the questions correctly, regardless of age; the proportion of correct responses dropped to 60 percent for those with one sibling and 40 percent for only children.

In a second study, 42 children were asked questions about another falsebelief story. Each of the 3- to 5-year-olds had only one sibling; 15 had an older sibling (the oldest of whom was 11) and 27 had a younger sibling.

Two-thirds of both older and younger children understood false belief, the researchers report. Thus, family size makes a specific impact on children's belief reasoning rather than on more general intellectual capacities, the psychologists suggest.

Other researchers have found that false-belief understanding rises in children who make more attempts to interact cooperatively with an older sibling. Belief and pretense are closely related concepts, leading Perner's group to offer pretend play among siblings as a way to enhance understanding of false belief.
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Title Annotation:children with two or more siblings understand false belief concept earlier than other children
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 10, 1994
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