The Popularity Contest

Photo credit: Pixabay
Photo credit: Pixabay

I took both my kids to a movie night at their school last week. It was great excitement: coming to school in the evening, wearing pajamas, and watching a movie (complete with popcorn and juice) with all your friends. As you can imagine, there was very little watching going on. I was struck by the completely different behaviour of my two children. My son walked into the hall, found a clear spot to sit down, and was immediately immersed in the movie. He hardly noticed what was going on in the hall. My daughter was hauled by some girls, two years her senior, to come sit with them as soon as she walked in. Throughout the movie, I noticed she was mostly with her back to the screen. We went to the same event, but each of my children had a completely different experience.

It got me thinking about what makes kids popular. I was not a popular kid, so I wouldn’t know from experience. So, naturally, I turned to science. And I found this neat meta-analysis, which looked at whether Theory of Mind (reasoning about other people’s mental state) was correlated with popularity.

What they did

A meta-analysis is a study of studies (check out my new glossary for more details, and do let me know if it was helpful!). What I found interesting was that they differentiated between “sociometric popularity” and “perceived popularity”. Or, in non-technical terms, they distinguished between the kids who are well-liked by their peers, and the kids who have a perceived high social status. They also looked at the effects of age, gender, and the valence of the rating (that is, whether the ratings were positive or negative, because there’s a difference between not being liked and being rejected).

What They Found

So, overall there was a significant correlation between Theory of Mind and popularity—children who are better at “reading other people’s minds” were more popular. The relationship was a bit higher for perceived popularity, and a bit higher for girls, but these differences were not significant (although in the article’s abstract it almost sounds like they were).

What Does It Mean?

Well, it mostly mean that children who have better Theory of Mind are more popular. We cannot conclude, based on this study alone, that these children are popular because they have better Theory of Mind—we can just as easily conclude that these children have better Theory of Mind because they are more popular (they get more practice, for example). There is, however, evidence from different studies that Theory of Mind in preschool predicts later peer acceptance or likability.

This correlation definitely holds in our house: my daughter has been lying to us since she was 2.5 years old. Lying requires quite advanced Theory of Mind (for a preschooler), as you have to understand that other people don’t think what you do, and so mommy doesn’t necessarily knows what’s in your head. However, my daughter also entered school with a big brother, and she knew quite a few kids from her brother’s class, so Theory of Mind is not the whole story.


You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Photo Credit: asenat29
Photo Credit: asenat29

I wrote before about what developmental scientists call “Theory of Mind” – the ability to reason about others’ mental states, such as desires, beliefs, and intentions. This field of research is endlessly fascinating, as there is so much to learn. One of the hardest things to accommodate is seemingly contradicting findings with different age groups.

Take for example research about desire. A while ago (16 years now), researchers looked into 14- and 18-month-olds’ ability to respect another’s desire that conflicted with their own. An experimenter exhibited “liking behaviours” (saying “yummy”, rubbing her tummy, etc.) towards either goldfish crackers or broccoli. Since 93% of the kids preferred goldfish crackers (naturally), for about half of the kids the experimenter’s preference for broccoli conflicted with their own. Then the experimenter held out her hand and asked, “Can you give me some?”

About 80% of the 14-months-olds gave the experimenter goldfish crackers regardless of her expressed “desire”. However, only 30% of the 18-months-olds gave her goldfish crackers when she showed preference for broccoli. That is, the majority of 18-months-olds were able to respect the experimenter’s preference for broccoli, as weird as they may have thought it was. So, as per the authors, 18-months-olds were able to consider another person’s desire and act on it, despite the conflict with their own preference.

Now, another recent research looked at 3- to 5-year-olds. Cristina Atance is a lovely person and bright researcher working at Ottawa University. Our lab has collaborated with hers and we have a good relationship. She and her graduate student ran a study in which they looked at whether preschoolers can choose a gift for their mom. They showed the kids two items: a stuffed teddy bear and a magazine. There were several copies of each item, like you can see in a store. They asked children what would be a good gift for them and what would be a good gift for their mom. But they changed the order of the questions. So, some of the children first got to choose a gift for themselves and then choose a gift for their mom, whereas some of the children had to choose first for mom and only then for themselves. They also had a condition in which children were told that they will get to choose for themselves later, but they have to choose for mom first (the anticipated satisfaction condition). Turns out that all kids were better at choosing the appropriate gift for mom after they chose (or anticipated choosing) a gift for themselves than they were before they chose a gift for themselves. Most 3-year-olds selected the teddy bear for mom if they had to choose for mom first, but about 50% were able to choose correctly after they chose the teddy bear for themselves. Most 4- and 5-year-olds were better than that, and were able to choose the appropriate gift for mom after they chose a gift for themselves (although their performance when choosing for mom first was lower).

There are a few problems with this study. One of them is the (very) small sample size – there are simply not enough kids in each condition and each age group to really be able to generalize. Another problem (and I think the main one) is with the fact that the verbal instructions for the choose-for-self-first and the anticipated-choosing-for-self were much longer than the last, choose-for-mommy-first condition. “Stop-and-think” paradigms have been well documented to increase preschoolers’ inhibitory control, so it’s possible that the longer verbal instructions provided a long enough “stop and think” time interval for the kids to think about what’s actually appropriate for mom.

But let’s assume that we accept the results of this study as is. How come 18-months-old kids can think about someone else’s desires but they somehow loose this ability when they are 3-years-old? One explanation is that there’s something different in the way we think about food from a very young age. That is, when it comes to food (the objects of “desire” in the first study I discussed) even babies can understand that different people like different things. I suspect that’s not the case, but that’s one difference between the first and second papers I mentioned. Another possibility (and I think this one’s more likely) is that all of the babies’ experience with the experiment in the first study was her intense dislike of goldfish crackers and her intense liking of broccoli. In contrast, 3-year-olds are likely to experience their mom as someone who actually likes teddy bears (because when your toddler brings you a teddy bear, you say “oh, cute teddy!” even if you are only half conscious), and are not very likely to experience their mom as someone who reads magazines (do you know any moms of very young preschoolers who have the time?). Therefore, it only makes sense that the kids were not entirely sure what to do. By the way, I tried this with my own kids, and both said that, between a stuffed zebra and glasses, glasses would be a good present for mommy – despite never seeing me wearing glasses. But they also thought I would like broccoli better than a cupcake (not quite true), at which point the conversation was derailed by requests for cupcakes. Clearly my homemade experiment was not well thought out.

That said, this field of research is really interesting and highly practical. The next time you want to take your preschoolers shopping, promise them they can choose something for themselves at the end, and see if it goes better. I would love to hear the results of that experiment.

Walk in My Shoes: Can Toddlers Take Another Person’s Perspective?

Photo Credit: dreamponderCreate
Photo Credit: dreamponderCreate

When my son was just over 3, granny was visiting us. When granny visits, mommy is very happy, because granny gets up with the kids on the weekends and mommy gets to sleep in. That said, since mommy is used to getting up at 6:30, “sleeping in” no longer means what it used to mean. I came down for breakfast not long after granny and my son came down, and I asked my son if he would like some milk. Indignant, he said, “I already said no!” – Turns out that granny just asked him the very same question (perhaps because he always wants milk as soon as he goes downstairs in the morning). Why was he so indignant? It’s very hard for young children to consider what other people know and don’t know, and my son assumed that, being mommy, I knew everything and therefore heard him saying no to granny and, being mommy, was just nagging.

I wrote before about the difficulties children have with considering what other people know. And yet, studies show that even apes take into consideration what other apes can and cannot see – or what they do and don’t know – when deciding on their action. It turns out that when you ask the right questions, toddlers answer.

What they did

The authors of this paper wanted to see whether toddlers would be able to take into account another person’s perspective – that is, what another person can and cannot see. They tested 18-and 24-months-olds in the following procedure: the child was on one side of the room, and the experimenter came into the room for the other side. There were two toys on the floor, one was visible to the experimenter, and the other wasn’t (it was hidden from the experimenter’s sight behind a bucket). The experimenter either just asked, “Can you give me the toy?” or showed searching behaviours and said, “Where is it? I can’t find it! Can you give me the toy?”

What they found

In significantly more than 50% of the times (50% is what you would expect by chance), 24-months-old but not 18-months-old gave the experimenter the toy that was hidden from him in the experimental condition (when it was obvious that the experimenter was searching for something). Both groups gave the experimenter the hidden toy 50% of the time in the control condition, when he simply asked for it.

What does it mean?

It means that 2-year-olds were able to take another person’s perspective and understand that the experimenter couldn’t see the object because it was occluded, even though the child could see the toy. They basically took into account another person’s knowledge to guide their behaviour. It may not be explicit knowledge in the way that 4-year-olds are able to say that Maxi thinks that his chocolate is still in the cupboard because he didn’t see mom move it to the drawer, but it’s still quite amazing. Also, this study is so elegant and cool that I just had to share it.

Understanding Other Minds

Adults read minds all the time. Children, however, are not so great at it. How come?

Theory of Mind is our reasoning about others’ actions using mental states – wants, thinks, feels, etc. It’s not limited to people: we sometimes say the computer hates us (or is feeling down today) if it doesn’t behave the way we expect it to. And we do it all the time with people. We say that the boy is crying because he is sad, or that the girl took the cookie because she wanted to eat it. In both cases, although we may be perfectly correct, we have no way of seeing the boy’s feelings or the girl’s desires, and therefore this is a theory that we form to explain observed behaviour. This is why theory of mind is often called “folk psychology”.

In the classic task that is still used to measure false belief – an aspect of theory of mind – researchers presented children with the following scenario: Maxi (typically a Playmobil doll) places his chocolate in the kitchen cupboard. Then he goes to play outside, and mom comes in. She finds the chocolate, moves it to a drawer, and leaves. Maxi comes back, and he wants his chocolate. The child is asked “where will Maxi look for his chocolate?” Awesomely, a 3-year-old would say: in the drawer. The researchers believe that this is because 3-year-olds do not have access to Maxi’s thoughts, and therefore they cannot understand a situation in which someone (Maxi) has a different belief than their own. Because I (the child watching this scenario) know where the chocolate is, then Maxi knows where the chocolate is. By the time children are 5 years old, almost all of them would correctly answer that Maxi will look for his chocolate in the cupboard. This task is not quite measuring theory of mind: it’s measuring false belief understanding (accepting that other people may have beliefs that do not match reality), which is a bit more sophisticated than, say, understanding that some people may like broccoli rather than chocolate (understanding desires, which is also an aspect of theory of mind).

The number of studies looking into theory of mind is insanely big. There are probably very few people in the world who can summarize all of it from start to finish. But I will highlight a couple of things that I find interesting.


Naturally, the better the child’s command over language, the better they do in all sorts of tasks of this nature. But there’s a theory saying that until the child has command over a certain linguistic structure, she cannot understand theory of mind. Specifically, the structure of “Maxi thinks that…” is a rather advanced grammatical structure, and the idea is that before the child can understand that structure, she cannot think about other people thoughts. Jill de Villier is the main proponent of this account; she has worked with my supervisor in the past and is an awesome and very smart lady.

Nature or Nurture?

There was a fierce debate in the scientific community regarding whether theory of mind is innate and only comes online gradually, or is it something cultural. As in any such debate, the answer is both.

Evidence for the innateness side come from the “how low can you go” game, and some studies show that infants as young as 15 months old are able to identify a false belief. The idea is that very young children have not had a sufficient exposure to environmental factors, and so the fact that they are able to understand false belief indicates that this is an innate skill.

Evidence for the environmental side come from the fact that in some countries children are able to perform the “change of location” task earlier or later than the magical age of 4. For example, in Japan, children perform worse than in the US. The argument is that Japanese language does not allow for “mind reading” because it is considered impolite to assume you know anything about other people’s state of mind. Another interesting finding is that there’s a link between number of siblings and theory of mind performance – the idea is that there’s something about siblings interactions that promotes thinking about others’ mental states.


One of the most striking findings is that children with autism are overwhelmingly bad at theory of mind tasks. This is so strong a finding that many researchers consider autism to be mainly a problem with mind reading. If you read
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, you might have noticed that the main character’s main issue is that he cannot read other people’s feelings on their faces. This is very characteristic of children with autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), and can lead to some very difficult situations for them. The problem, though, is that children with autism have all sorts of other issues, and that we don’t even have a very reliable definition of autism. The area of autism research is messy at best.

In summary, theory of mind is an awesome subject! Please let me know if any of these topics are of interest, and I will see if I can write a more detailed post.