Preschoolers who scored higher on "theory of mind" tests were better at discerning between accurate and inaccurate sources of information, according to a study published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology. Study co-author Patricia Brosseau-Liard notes empathy is only one factor contributing to selective learning.
Children can selectively attend to various attributes of a model, such as past accuracy or physical strength, to guide their social learning. There is a debate regarding whether a relation exists between theory-of-mind skills and selective learning. We hypothesized that high performance on theory-of-mind tasks would predict preference for learning new words from accurate informants (an epistemic attribute), but not from physically strong informants (a non-epistemic attribute). Three- and 4-year-olds (N = 65) completed two selective learning tasks, and their theory-of-mind abilities were assessed. As expected, performance on a theory-of-mind battery predicted children's preference to learn from more accurate informants but not from physically stronger informants. Results thus suggest that preschoolers with more advanced theory of mind have a better understanding of knowledge and apply that understanding to guide their selection of informants. This work has important implications for research on children's developing social cognition and early learning.
Brosseau-Liard, P., Penney, D. and Poulin-Dubois, D. (2015), Theory of mind selectively predicts preschoolers’ knowledge-based selective word learning. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 33: 464–475. doi: 10.1111/bjdp.12107