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Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task: Let the Robot Ask the Question!

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The poor performances of typically developing children younger than 4 in the first-order false-belief task "Maxi and the chocolate" is analyzed from the perspective of conversational pragmatics. An ambiguous question asked by an adult experimenter (perceived as a teacher) can receive different interpretations based on a search for relevance, by which children according to their age attribute different intentions to the questioner, within the limits of their own meta-cognitive knowledge. The adult experimenter tells the child the following story of object-transfer: "Maxi puts his chocolate into the green cupboard before going out to play. In his absence, his mother moves the chocolate from the green cupboard to the blue one." The child must then predict where Maxi will pick up the chocolate when he returns. To the child, the question from an adult (a knowledgeable person) may seem surprising and can be understood as a question of his own knowledge of the world, rather than on Maxi's mental representations. In our study, without any modification of the initial task, we disambiguate the context of the question by (1) replacing the adult experimenter with a humanoid robot presented as "ignorant" and "slow" but trying to learn and (2) placing the child in the role of a "mentor" (the knowledgeable person). Sixty-two typical children of 3 years-old completed the first-order false belief task "Maxi and the chocolate," either with a human or with a robot. Results revealed a significantly higher success rate in the robot condition than in the human condition. Thus, young children seem to fail because of the pragmatic difficulty of the first-order task, which causes a difference of interpretation between the young child and the experimenter.
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ORIGINAL RESEARCH
published: 23 November 2020
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.593807
Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 1November 2020 | Volume 11 | Article 593807
Edited by:
Hiromi Tsuji,
Osaka Shoin Women’s University,
Japan
Reviewed by:
Federico Manzi,
Catholic University of the Sacred
Heart, Italy
Laura Macchi,
University of Milan-Bicocca, Italy
*Correspondence:
Jean Baratgin
jean.baratgin@univ-paris8.fr
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Cognitive Science,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 11 August 2020
Accepted: 28 October 2020
Published: 23 November 2020
Citation:
Baratgin J, Dubois-Sage M,
Jacquet B, Stilgenbauer J-L and
Jamet F (2020) Pragmatics in the
False-Belief Task: Let the Robot Ask
the Question!
Front. Psychol. 11:593807.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.593807
Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task:
Let the Robot Ask the Question!
Jean Baratgin 1,2
*, Marion Dubois-Sage 1,2 , Baptiste Jacquet 1,2 , Jean-Louis Stilgenbauer 1,2,3
and Frank Jamet 1,2,4
1Laboratoire Cognition Humaine et Artificielle, Université Paris 8, Paris, France, 2Probability, Assessment, Reasoning and
Inferences Studies (P-A-R-I-S) Association, Paris, France, 3Facultés Libres de Philosophie et de Psychologie (IPC), Paris,
France, 4CY Cergy-Paris Université, ESPE de Versailles, Paris, France
The poor performances of typically developing children younger than 4 in the first-order
false-belief task “Maxi and the chocolate” is analyzed from the perspective of
conversational pragmatics. An ambiguous question asked by an adult experimenter
(perceived as a teacher) can receive different interpretations based on a search for
relevance, by which children according to their age attribute different intentions to
the questioner, within the limits of their own meta-cognitive knowledge. The adult
experimenter tells the child the following story of object-transfer: “Maxi puts his chocolate
into the green cupboard before going out to play. In his absence, his mother moves the
chocolate from the green cupboard to the blue one.” The child must then predict where
Maxi will pick up the chocolate when he returns. To the child, the question from an adult (a
knowledgeable person) may seem surprising and can be understood as a question of his
own knowledge of the world, rather than on Maxi’s mental representations. In our study,
without any modification of the initial task, we disambiguate the context of the question
by (1) replacing the adult experimenter with a humanoid robot presented as “ignorant”
and “slow” but trying to learn and (2) placing the child in the role of a “mentor” (the
knowledgeable person). Sixty-two typical children of 3 years-old completed the first-order
false belief task “Maxi and the chocolate,” either with a human or with a robot. Results
revealed a significantly higher success rate in the robot condition than in the human
condition. Thus, young children seem to fail because of the pragmatic difficulty of the
first-order task, which causes a difference of interpretation between the young child and
the experimenter.
Keywords: theory of mind, preschool children, pragmatics, humanoid robot, mentor-child context, ignorant robot,
human robot interaction, first-order false belief task
1. INTRODUCTION
For almost 40 years, the explicit question in false belief tasks (FBT) of Wimmer and Perner (1983),
in which the child must express the false belief of a character on the state of the world, has been
the commonly accepted task to study the Theory of Mind (ToM). Understanding the false beliefs
of others is of considerable importance for the cognitive and social development of children. It is
required to grasp that others have mental states, subjective representations conditioned to specific
knowledge and experiences, distinct from ours. Thus, understanding that beliefs can be different
from one person to another (Perner, 1991). Sabbagh and Bowman (2018) highlight that explicit FBT
Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
are a simple test paradigm perfectly representative of this
understanding. In these tasks, children must recognize that
someone else will behave in a way that does not correspond to
how they understand the state of the world.
Explicit FBT require a direct verbal answer to an explicit
question of the experimenter. The expected answer seems to
be very intuitive and is traditionally considered to be a reliable
indicator of the understanding of false beliefs. The explicit
FBT of Wimmer and Perner (1983) is the following task: The
experimenter tells the child participant a story of object transfer
through the use of clips1: Before going out to play, the child
Maxi puts his chocolate into the green cupboard. While he
is outside, his mother moves the chocolate and puts it into
the blue cupboard. Maxi then comes back to get his chocolate
(see Figure 1)2.
The child must predict which cupboard Maxi will open to try
to get his chocolate. To get the child’s answer, the experimenter
asks the following test question (ToM question): “Where will
Maxi look for the chocolate?” In this question, children are
invited to indicate that Maxi will look for the chocolate where he
believes it is (i.e., where he left it) instead of where the children
know it really is. To answer correctly (green cupboard), the
child must activate in their mind the false belief of the character
Maxi, who doesn’t know the chocolate has been moved, while
inhibiting their own knowledge of the world (the chocolate is
in the blue cupboard). A control question is then asked by the
experimenter following the ToM question to make sure the child
understood the story. If the child answers correctly to the ToM
question, a “reality question” is then asked regarding the true
location of the chocolate at the end of the story: “Where is the
chocolate really?” If the child instead fails to answer the ToM
question, the next question is then a “memory question” to see
if they remember where the chocolate was at the beginning of
the story: “Do you remember where Maxi put the chocolate in
the beginning?” Results of numerous studies done with neuro-
typical children of various cultures (Callaghan et al., 2005)
indicate that the majority of 4 years-old children answer the blue
cupboard to the ToM question (where the chocolate actually
is). It is necessary to wait 4–5 years to see children answering
correctly that Maxi will look into the green cupboard (Wimmer
and Perner, 1983; Baron-Cohen et al., 1985; Wellman et al.,
2001; Sabbagh and Bowman, 2018). The explanation being that
children between 3 and 5 learn conceptual knowledge necessary
1The situation is more or less complex depending on the level of false belief
evaluated. Three levels of representation (three gradual orders of difficulty)
obtained at different ages can be distinguished (Duval et al., 2011). Order zero is
automatically acquired. It corresponds to what we are currently thinking about.
First order corresponds to the inference of the mental state of someone else and
would only be acquired at the age of 4. The second order refers to the inference of
the mental state of another person about another person and should be acquired
between 6 and 7. This paper is mainly interested in the age at which children
acquire the first order ToM. For the sake of simplicity, we will omit to specify “first
order” when we refer to “explicit FBT” in the rest of this paper.
2In Wimmer and Perner (1983) Maxi would put the chocolate in the “blue
cupboard and his mother would move it to the “green” cupboard. We’ve
interchanged the colors in this article to match the clips used in our experiment
that were taken from Duval et al. (2011, p. 45).
to make explicit decisions about the representative mental state
of others3.
Yet, these results seem to be in contradiction with behavior
observed in 3 years-old children requiring first order abilities,
such as the game of Hide and Seek. In this game, the child must
go somewhere they will not be seen by others. To succeed the
child must understand the difference between their knowledge
and what others will perceive. Children younger than 4 are able
to evaluate what can be perceived by others, and thus to adopt a
point of view different from their own (Shatz et al., 1983; Reddy,
1991, 2007, 2008; Bartsch and Wellman, 1995). The first order
ToM then seems to be an ability acquired before the age of 4
(Baillargeon et al., 2010; Westra and Carruthers, 2017). Hala
et al. (1991) show that children who failed an explicit FBT, in
an ecological situation, can understand and use the false beliefs
to explain the mental state of the protagonist of the story. The
reasons of the systematic failure of 3 years-old children would
be, for these authors, due to the specificity of the explicit FBT.
The child must give conscious and declarative answers to the
questions of the experimenter. Explicit tasks with verbal answers
would require important cognitive resources. These tasks would
greatly involve executive functions; such as the ability of the child
to inhibit their own point of view to consider that of others.
These executive functions would still be immature at the age of
4 (Leslie, 2005; Baillargeon et al., 2010; Westra and Carruthers,
2017; Oktay-Gür et al., 2018, for a discussion). In implicit FBT, in
which the answers of children are deduced from actions or gazes
and not from explicit pointing or linguistic replies, a much more
precocious success (starting from 15 months old) is observed
(Onishi and Baillargeon, 2005; Southgate et al., 2007; Surian et al.,
2007; Baillargeon et al., 2010; Scott et al., 2010; Heyes, 2014).
In consequence, there is a “developmental paradox of the
understanding of false beliefs” (De Bruin and Newen, 2012;
Newen and Wolf, in press): toddlers succeed in implicit FBT
using behavioral responses but kids below the age of 4 generally
fail the explicit FBT in which they must explicitly answer the
experimenter’s question. Some following a “nativist” approach
argue in favor of an early ability to detect false beliefs (based
on an innate module) allowing toddlers to succeed in implicit
FBT (Leslie et al., 2004). Others following a more “empiricist”
approach argue that the ability to understand false beliefs
is due to the development of cognitive abilities. It is that
development which is responsible for the change of performance
in explicit FBT at the age of 4 (see Newen and Wolf, in
press, for a recent review). Newen and Wolf (in press) point
out a distinction dividing both nativists and empiricists into
those who give a cognitive explanation and those who give
a situational explanation to the failure of children. For the
former, explicit FBT would be difficult because the correct
answer would require cognitive resources not yet developed
for children between 3 and 4. For the latter, the failure in
explicit FBT would actually be the result of the procedure
itself; which would be a source of the misunderstanding of the
question for these children. Our study focuses on this situational
explanation (and in particular the pragmatic explanation) of the
3See for a recent argument in favor of this hypothesis (Doherty and Perner, 2020).
Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 2November 2020 | Volume 11 | Article 593807
Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
FIGURE 1 | The story “Maxi and Chocolate” of Wimmer and Perner (1983) in clips (taken from Duval et al., 2011, p. 45). Left clip : Maxi comes home from shopping
with his mother, and puts the chocolate into the green cupboard before going outside to play. Middle clip: While Maxi is gone, Maxi’s mother takes the chocolate from
the green cupboard to make a cake and puts it back into the blue cupboard. Right clip: Maxi comes home for a snack. He still remembers where he put the chocolate.
failure of toddlers in explicit FBT. We suggest a new procedure
able to cancel out situational factors without modifying the
structure of explicit FBT themselves. Still, we believe that
the situational explanation is profoundly cognitive as well as
the Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson, 1986) we use
to explain the influence of the situation is a fundamentally
cognitive theory.
Helming et al. (2014, 2016),Westra (2017), and Westra
and Carruthers (2017) all consider the failure of children
younger than 4 to be caused by a defective understanding
of the expectations of the experimenter in the question. The
correct interpretation of the ToM question would require a
cognitive effort too great for children of that age. Furthermore,
since discussions on beliefs are not common, children would
systematically interpret the expectations of the experimenter
to be about testing the child’s knowledge about the state
of the world (i.e., indicating where the chocolate really is)
compared to the beliefs of a fictive character. This incorrect
interpretation of the ToM question would be caused by the
conversational context: the attribution of the status of teacher
to the experimenter, and their own status of pupil. We suggest
transforming this context (1) By switching the roles and specific
statuses of the experimenter and of the child participant and
(2) By replacing the experimenter with an “ignorant and slow
entity.” This context, we call “mentor-child,” disambiguates
the ToM question asked by the ignorant entity by making it
clear that it expects to understand the false belief of Maxi.
To do this, we replace the experimenter with a humanoid
robot NAO. This work will be organized in the following
way: After recalling the obligation to consider the pragmatic
implicatures in all acts of communication, we will expose those
driving the child to produce an incorrect answer in the explicit
FBT. We will then explain a new procedure to diminish the
ambiguity of the questions. After describing the results, we will
discuss them and conclude with the suggestion of future areas
of research.
2. THE AMBIGUITY OF THE TOM
QUESTION
Sperber and Wilson (1986, 2002) have shown that all
communication is inevitably of a pragmatic nature. A
communicator performs in a way, such as producing a
speech act or a gesture, and the receiving audience must
understand the intent hidden beneath the surface. It is especially
important to understand that most of the experimental
paradigms in cognition, social cognition and developmental
cognition correspond to an act of communication between an
experimenter and participants. There are many examples in the
psychological literature that answers given, considered to be
incorrect by the experimenter, by adult participants are actually
the result of the participants’ misunderstanding of the intentions
of the experimenter. The utterances used and the context of the
experimental task trigger implicatures in the participants that
can induce answers that are different from those expected by the
experimenter (see Dulany and Hilton, 1991; Sperber et al., 1995;
Baratgin and Noveck, 2000; Macchi, 2000; Politzer and Macchi,
2000; Baratgin, 2002, 2009; Bagassi and Macchi, 2006; Baratgin
and Politzer, 2006, 2007, 2010; Macchi and Bagassi, 2012; Macchi
et al., 2019, 2020, for examples). Many developmental studies
also give pieces of evidence for the ability of children, given their
age, to recognize the intentions of the communicator (see Braine
and Shanks, 1965a,b; McGarrigle and Donaldson, 1974; Rose and
Blank, 1974; Markman and Wachtel, 1988; Politzer, 1993, 2004,
2016; Gelman and Bloom, 2000; Diesendruck and Markson,
2001; Bagassi et al., 2020, for examples).
Sperber (1994) suggests that the child uses the simplest
procedure of interpretation which consists in inferring from the
communicative stimulus the most relevant intention in relation
to their own point of view. However, what is relevant for the child
may be different from what the experimenter actually intends
to communicate. Thus, by analyzing the experimental task of
Piaget and Szeminska (1941) on the class inclusion question,
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Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
Politzer (1993, 2004, 2016) has shown that the performances
of children in relation to their age could be explained by
the differences of their interpretation of the question. The
experimenter showed five asters and three tulips. The child was
then asked whether “there are more asters or more flowers.” The
typical answer of children under 8 is “There are more asters.”
Politzer demonstrates that the question can be characterized
by an ambiguity at the root of the response of the youngest
children. While the question of class inclusion is enunciated,
according to the relevance principle (Sperber and Wilson, 1986),
children will try to infer the expectations of the experimenter
and to adapt their answer so that it feels relevant to them.
Questions are relevant when they make the person to whom
they are asked answer in a relevant way (i.e., questions that
require the least cognitive cost for the most contextual effect).
These assumptions depend on the representational attributions
of the child for the experimenter which are a function of
their development (Hayes, 1972). According to Politzer, young
children do not make mistakes of class inclusion. They simply
have a different representation of the question, making them give
an incorrect answer.
“This is a fundamental insight. Once this view is adopted, the
disambiguation of the question must be envisaged in relation
to the child’s development. From the notion that the children
attempt to render the question optimally relevant it follows that
the way they do so will vary with their cognitive development.
In other words, the interpretation chosen by the children
is constrained by their level of development. Therefore, the
interpretation can be predicted based on what is likely to be the
children’s estimation of the relevance of the question” (Politzer,
2016, p. 3).
Politzer observed that when he disambiguated the question
of class inclusion the success of participants was significantly
improved and came earlier: between 5 and 6 years-old (see also
Jamet et al., 2018).
It is then legitimate to wonder if, like with the question of
class inclusion, the incorrect reply given by young children in
explicit FBT could also be the result of a different interpretation
of the ToM question which would be caused by an incorrect
inference of the experimenter’s expectations. With the years, and
with the acquisition of the pragmatic skills of the child, the
ambiguity of the question would later decrease. This pragmatic
hypothesis could explain the early success in implicit FBT, which
are simplifications of explicit FBT in which the ToM question is
not explicitly asked. To succeed in these tests, the child does not
need to correctly interpret the question or to correctly infer the
intention of the experimenter. They only need to understand the
false beliefs. For Siegal and Beattie (1991),Westra (2017),Westra
and Carruthers (2017), since the beginning of their development,
young children can create representations of others’ beliefs and
understand the false beliefs. However, 3 years-old children do not
expect beliefs to be a likely topic of conversation (Westra, 2017).
It is difficult for them to induce that facts relative to someone’s
beliefs can be a relevant topic in the conversation with the
experimenter and that this is what the question is about. Despite
the fact that young children constantly attribute propositional
attitudes to other agents, understanding when these pre-linguistic
concepts play a part in the conversation is not only a question
of acquisition of the adequate vocabulary but would also be a
question of the development of pragmatic skills (Westra and
Carruthers, 2017). The child must be exposed to conversations
for these social stimuli to play a crucial part in the strengthening
of their linguistic and pragmatic skills (Astington and Olson,
1995; Carpendale and Lewis, 2004; Antonietti et al., 2006; Westra,
2017)4.
This lack of pragmatic skill is even more salient in explicit FBT
as the conversational interaction happens between the child and
a stranger (the experimenter). At the age of 3, even if the young
child has had numerous interactions with their parents and
family, interactions with adults are generally limited, except for
the teacher which is for most still a recent interaction (3 is usually
the age at which children start school). The teacher is certainly an
important reference for the young child during the experiment.
After 2 months of class, preschool children have integrated the
didactic contract wanted by the teacher. The teacher explicitly
invites the pupils to work well, to show everything they know.
Each time the child returns to class, after completing an activity,
the teacher will ask them if they worked well. As Westra and
Carruthers (2017) explained, children are readily able to consider
that the interaction with the experimenter has an educational
intention. Indeed, educational clues are almost always present
in an explicit FBT. The experimenter, for the child, is in a
social position much superior to theirs and, just like their
teacher, has the encyclopedic knowledge. The experimenter-
child relationship reinforces this impression of superiority since
the experimenter is introduced to the child as an authority
figure to whom they must obey. This attribution of teacher is
facilitated even more by the fact that the experiments most often
happen at school, during school time. This supposition of an
educational intention in the task implies, for the child, that an
educational behavior is expected of them, as it is usually the
case in this context. Therefore, they are in a position of pupil
during the experiment. How uncommon the situation is, an adult
replacing the teacher for an educational exercise, can strengthen
the idea that this exercise is really important and that this new
teacher may be special and knows more than the usual teacher.
This attribution is all the easier since the experimenter is often
presented as a researcher, a specialist. Preschool children indeed
seem to be already sensitive to the knowledge of the informant in
educational activities (Jeong and Frye, 2018b).
4Clues exist seeming to indicate that the late success in explicit FBT may indeed
be the result of learning from repeated social experiences (Wang and Su, 2009).
Studies show that a correlation exists between the number of brothers and sisters
of a similar age and the comprehension of false beliefs (Perner et al., 1994; Ruffman
et al., 2012; Jenkins and Astington, 2014). From the age of 3 the child can use
language from a meta-cognitive point of view to lie (Lewis and Saarni, 1993) and
start to be able to use contextual information (Salomo et al., 2013). It is necessary to
wait the age of 4 to see children able to adapt their discourse by taking into account
the age of the listener, their status and their gender; and can adapt their discourse
to younger people. They can also ask a conversation partner to reformulate an
utterance if they did not understand it (Clark and Amaral, 2010).
Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 4November 2020 | Volume 11 | Article 593807
Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
When teaching a new concept in an example or a story,
the teacher later checks the child understood correctly through
simple and direct questions linked to what was just told.
These questions are very rarely ambiguous. The correct answer
expected by the teacher is usually meant to prove that they
understood the story correctly. Thus, to the child, the same can
be expected of the questions asked by the experimenter. The
main difficulty in explicit FBT is the fact that they involve four
different elements of knowledge: (1) Where Maxi initially put the
chocolate, (2) The change of location done by Maxi’s mother, (3)
The fact that this change of location happened in Maxi’s absence,
and (4) The fact that Maxi is looking for his chocolate, probably
in the wrong place. For the child, there are multiple possible
interpretations of the experimenter’s expectations when they ask
the ToM question. They can be: trying to assess whether the
child understood the change of location of the chocolate (steps
1 and 2), or assess whether the child understood the fact that
Maxi was not there during the change of location, and that in
consequence he will look for the chocolate in the wrong place:
the initial location (steps 3 and 4). Along these interpretations,
the one which concerns the attribution of beliefs to someone
else has a greater cognitive cost for young children. They are
generally not experienced enough in interacting with adults to
grasp the relevance of this expectation. Children of 3 years-old
will instead use the more familiar interpretation: they will think
that the experimenter expects the reply to be about the child’s
understanding of the change of location (Siegal and Beattie, 1991;
Hansen, 2010; Lewis et al., 2012; Westra, 2017).
Helming et al. (2014, 2016) offer a more elaborate pragmatic
explanation of young children’s answer. For them, explicit FBT
force the children to adopt two points of views at the same
time. One is more detached: “spectating” in the third person
the action of the main character of the story, in particular
focusing on the character’s beliefs; and the other is more
communicative: interacting with the experimenter in the second
person. This first point of view being disrupted by the second.
The ToM question then generates two biases: one “referential”
and one “cooperative.” Children have the possibility of mentally
representing the real location of the chocolate or where Maxi
wrongly believes it is. Using the word chocolate in the question
can bias children toward answering with the real location
(referential bias). The interaction with the experimenter would
bring the child to focus on the knowledge they share (i.e., the
real location of the item). This would then disrupt the ability of
the child to track the false belief of the main character from the
third person point of view. In essence: when the experimenter
refers to the target item, they direct the attention toward the
real location. The cooperative bias is the result of the tendency
of toddlers to want to make themselves useful by spontaneously
helping others (even adult strangers) to reach their goals, even if
it requires a greater effort and if they are busy with a task of their
own (see Warneken and Tomasello, 2007, 2009, 2013; Liszkowski
et al., 2008; Buttelmann et al., 2009, 2014; Warneken, 2015). This
helpfulness seems to be mainly motivated by an intrinsic care for
the other and not for any personal reward (Hepach et al., 2012,
2016). This tendency to help others made it possible to create
implicit FBT. The task given to toddlers consisted in helping an
adult reach their goal. Yet to infer this goal, the toddlers needed
to consider what the adult believed. This tendency would drive
children to adopt a second person point of view toward the main
character of the story, rather than a spectating point of view in
the third person, this in turn driving them to incorrectly interpret
the expectations of the experimenter. Children understand that
the main character needs help, because he has false beliefs, to
avoid picking the wrong location. They spontaneously want to
help him by telling him the correct location and can readily
expect to be invited to do so. This, for the child, would strengthen
the interpretation of the ToM question “Where will Maxi look for
his chocolate?” as an invitation to help the main character find
the item. This means interpreting the question as a normative
question “Where should he look for his chocolate?” or even
“Can you tell Maxi where to find his chocolate?” As Newen
and Wolf (in press) point out, this pragmatic explanation is
not in contradiction with the cognitive explanation (in terms
of “mental files” by Recanati, 2012) suggested by Perner et al.
(2015),Perner and Leahy (2016), and Huemer et al. (2018). These
mental files, or mental representations, include the “information
management tools about an object in the world” and the links
between the different files which make it possible to share
information between them. In “Maxi and the chocolate,” the child
has two mental files of the situation: one “regular” file with the
information that the chocolate is in the blue cupboard, and one
“indirect by proxy” file indexed on Maxi with the information
that the chocolate is in the green cupboard. According to Perner
and Leahy (2016), when children below the age of 4 are faced
with the ToM question, they are not yet able to switch between
the indirect mental file and the regular mental file in a controlled
and systematic way. It is only once the mental files are linked
that the child can access the information about Maxi’s beliefs. The
pragmatic explanation, through the Relevance Theory, allows us
to understand which mental file will be activated. In a traditional
context, the mental file which has the least cognitive cost and the
greatest contextual effect is the regular mental file which answers
what the child believes to be the experimenter’s expectation.
Thus, as Westra and Carruthers (2017) pointed out, there
are two interpretations at stake in addition to the correct
interpretation of the ToM question for a total of three possible
interpretations: (1) The “helpfulness-interpretation” where the
question corresponds to an invitation to help the character, (2)
The “knowledge-exhibiting-interpretation” where the question
corresponds to an invitation to show one’s knowledge of the
events in the story (steps 1 and 2 as described in the previous
paragraphs), and (3) The “psychological knowledge-exhibiting-
interpretation” where the question corresponds to an invitation
to report the character’s false beliefs about the location of the
object (steps 3 and 4)5. The child’s task is to determine which
5These two additional interpretations were already evoked in (Perner et al., 1987, p.
126): “They may have misinterpreted the test question: ‘Where will the protagonist
look for the chocolate?’ as meaning, ‘Where should he look?’ or ‘Help him to find
it!”’ These authors changed the question to “Where does he think the chocolate
is?” However, as pointed out in Westra and Carruthers (2017), the term “think”
requires more cognitive resources than the term “to look.” Also, this version
complicates rather than simplifies the issue, which explains why it does not
improve the performance of young children.
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Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
of these three competing interpretations is most likely to meet
the experimenter’s. Interpretation (3) is the one expected by the
experimenter. Each of the other two leads to the incorrect answer
of indicating the actual location of the chocolate. As indicated
above toddlers do not yet have the pragmatic experience
required to understand that people’s beliefs are a valid topic of
conversation. In consequence, they are more inclined to interpret
the ToM question as a kind of indirect language act to verify their
knowledge of the real location of the chocolate (interpretation 1).
This will also help the character find the chocolate (interpretation
2). As children gain experience in discourse about the beliefs of
others, they begin to be able to recognize the true purpose of the
question and their true expectation (interpretation 3): reporting
explicitly the false belief of the character called Maxi (Westra and
Carruthers, 2017; Frank, 2018). They then understand that the
question “Where will Maxi look for the chocolate?” implicitly
means “What does Maxi falsely think about the location of
the chocolate?”
A number of authors have tried to directly disambiguate
the ToM question. Siegal and Beattie (1991) give the following
question [reformulated to fit Maxi and the Chocolate]: “Where
will Maxi look for the chocolate first?” which directly explains
the experimenter’s expectation. The authors observe a significant
increase in correct answers (Yazdi et al., 2006; Białecka-Pikul
et al., 2019). Hansen (2010) also observes much better results
when the experimenter directly specifies in their question that
they are not interested in the child’s knowledge of the state of the
world [reformulated to fit Maxi and the Chocolate]: “You and I
know where Maxi’s chocolate is, but where does he think it is?”
Another solution is to explicitly and conceptually explain the
important clues in the story to make the correct interpretation
(3) of the ToM question more conceptually relevant (Newen and
Wolf, in press), for example by making the false belief of the main
character more salient. Mitchell and Lacohée (1991) noticed that
children participating in explicit FBT who kept an explicit aide-
memoire of their prior belief (the cupboard where the chocolate
was [reformulated to fit “Maxi and the Chocolate”]) was much
more successful at avoiding a later deformation of this belief.
Lewis et al. (2012) showed that the explanation of the false beliefs
of another person is improved if we add another character to
the story who is also observing object’s change of location. The
presence of the other person conceptually highlights the possible
point of views in the story. In this situation the ToM question,
being explicitly directed at the character who did not see the
change of location, increases the relevance of interpretation (3)
on the false beliefs of the character. Rubio-Fernández and Geurts
(2013, 2016) demonstrated that toddlers can also succeed in
explicit FBT if the task is modified in such a way that, first, the
point of view of the other person is frequently repeated to the
child during the experiment and, second, the ToM question asked
to the child is transformed into “What happens next?” Here the
disruption induced by the experimenter focusing on the item is
no longer possible. It is also possible to make interpretation (2), of
exposing the child’s knowledge about the real location of the item,
less contextually relevant. Wellman and Bartsch (1988),Mascaro
and Morin (2015), and Mascaro et al. (2017) indeed notice better
performances when the children themselves do not know where
the actual location of the item is or if the item is removed from
the scene.
Finally, it is possible to change the experimental procedure to
make the spontaneous tendency of children to be useful, which
usually drives children toward the “helpfulness-interpretation”
(1), to become an indicator of the effective false belief of
the character. Matsui and Miura (2008) showed that toddlers
succeeded more easily when the task was changed to have them
choose a character whom they had to help find the item (pro-
social context).
To sum up: whether children can disambiguate the ToM
question depends on their meta-cognitive development. Toddlers
make the question more relevant by interpreting it as a question
about their knowledge of the story or, with the same result, a
question about their knowledge of the story to help the main
character. Older children interpret it correctly to be a request for
them to report their knowledge of the false belief of the character
in the story.
3. CHANGING THE CONTEXT TO
DISAMBIGUATE THE TOM QUESTION
In all these experiments the original task is modified. The
ToM question is sometimes modified, the participant is
sometimes asked to keep in memory the initial belief, a
character is sometimes added or some information is sometimes
removed. Our objective is to decrease the salience of incorrect
interpretations without changing neither the story nor the
question asked: by playing with the global context of the
experiment itself. A good example is the length and number
conservation task (Piaget and Szeminska, 1941). Assessing
the conservation of number is done by presenting two lines
of tokens, equal in number and arranged in a one-to-one
correspondence, in front of a child who judges them to be
the same. When the experimenter rearranges one of the rows
the non-conserving child changes their judgment in favor of
the longer row. McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) showed that
when the transformation of the row of tokens is the indirect
result of an action with a different goal, such as a transformation
effected by a “naughty teddy bear” who wants to “spoil the
game,” children are more conservant. In this “accidental
transformation,” there are no structural modification of
the task.
As explained above, the way the child interprets the questions
of the experimenter in explicit FBT depends, in part, on their
understanding of the nature of the communicative exchange
(i.e., its topic and goal). For toddlers, the context of the task,
as shown above, strongly expresses that of a school activity
with the status of the experimenter-teacher, able to judge, and
the location. Thus, the child infers effortlessly their role in this
task will be the one they already know and are used to during
classes: that of a pupil with the goal of learning and show
their knowledge. These assumptions made by the child for the
experimenter to be testing their knowledge are the origin of
interpretations (2) and (3). The “helpfulness-interpretation” (1)
can be considered to be the desired expectation in order to help
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Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
the character in the story (numerous studies cited above indicate
how spontaneously, and without ulterior motives, the toddler
displays an altruistic behavior). Thus, if we had an experimental
context in which exposing the knowledge of the false beliefs of
the character (interpretation 3) could also satisfy a “helpfulness-
interpretation” (interpretation 1), then interpretation (2), about
the actual state of the world described in the story, could
be inhibited.
3.1. A Mentor-Child and an Ignorant, Naive,
and Slow Pupil
To do this we must consider a situation which would change
the assumptions of the child about the person asking the ToM
question; a situation in which the child could spontaneously infer
that an answer indicating the false belief of the character would
help the person asking this question6. A first modification of the
context would then have the person asking the ToM question
display an explicit need to know the false belief of the character.
The person would have trouble understanding the story, as for
them the answer to the ToM question is far from obvious, even
if they asked it. This person must have less knowledge than the
child and must consider the child to be someone who knows
more. Thus, we must consider a context in which the status of
the child and of the experimenter are switched compared to the
original context.
We can imagine a “mentor-child” context in which the young
child must answer the questions of an ignorant entity introduced
by an authority figure: “You are the teacher and this is your pupil.
It doesn’t know much. It needs you7.” In the conversational act,
the expectation of the child regarding the questions of the entity
is to be able to help it learn new things. Let us imagine that this
ignorant being tells the child: “I was told a story that I didn’t
understand very well. I’ll tell it to you and then please explain
it to me.” After telling the story, the ignorant entity asks the ToM
question in a naive tone. The child answering correctly shows
their knowledge while helping the entity. The question here is
disambiguated and reliably drives the child toward interpretation
(3). The question asked in this context becomes natural, for the
child knows the entity to be ignorant and that it can ask trivial
questions. This is not the case in the traditional context where
it can seem surprising that a “knowing” adult could ask such
a question.
Another important aspect is to highlight the “naive,” “unsure
of itself,” and “slow” traits of the ignorant entity. This aspect helps
the child consider themselves knowledgeable compared to it. It
also helps the child feel useful when helping it. More importantly,
the “slow” aspect of the entity can favor the interpretation
of the control questions asked depending on the success or
failure in the ToM question (respectively the reality question
and the memory question). To our knowledge, the pragmatic
analysis of these questions has never been explicitly done in
6Several pieces of experimental evidence indicate that 3 years-old children easily
distinguish between what another person knows and does not (Hogrefe et al., 1986;
Perner and Leekam, 1986).
7Young children seem to better understand their role in educational activities when
they are explicitly formulated (Jeong and Frye, 2018a).
the literature. This can certainly be explained by the fact that
in Wimmer and Perner (1983), all children succeeding in the
ToM question also correctly answered the reality question8. In
the standard context, the interpretation of the reality question
is indeed completely obvious for the child. It corresponds to
the question that is the most expected; which has the strongest
contextual effect and requires the least cognitive cost to answer
it. After indicating the false belief of the character in the ToM
question, the reality question makes it even more explicit by
indicating where the item actually is. This second question does
not seem to be incongruous in the standard context in which
the child assigns the status of teacher to the experimenter. A
teacher often asks multiple questions to test the knowledge of
the child. In our “mentor-child” context, the reality question
asked by the ignorant entity can seem to be a bit odd to the
child in their role of teacher. Indeed, asking this second question
requires understanding that the chocolate is in a different place
than where the character believes it is9. Thus, the ignorant entity,
if it did understand correctly the answer given by the “mentor-
child” to the ToM question, should have also understood that
Maxi has a false belief and will look into the green cupboard
which is now empty. Frequently, when a pupil asks a second
question to the teacher just after receiving an answer to another,
it is often because they need more precision or because they did
not understand the answer. In this case, there are two possible
answers for the “mentor-child”: (1) Thinking that they were not
clear enough with their first answer and be inclined to repeat the
same answer as in the ToM question, or (2) Accurately answer the
reality question to give some new information to help the entity
understand their first answer to the ToM question. In order to
increase the chances of this second option, the entity must not
simply be perceived by the “mentor-child” as “ignorant” but also
“a bit slow.”
In a similar fashion, the memory question, asked after an
incorrect reply to the ToM question, can also be interpreted
as a request for confirmation of the understanding of the first
answer. Yet, in the standard context, the memory question can
seem to be disrupting for children younger than 4 incorrectly
answering the ToM question as the final location of the item
is given at the end of the story. Indeed, this answer implies
having followed the change of location of the chocolate during the
story and to remember the initial location of the chocolate. The
weak performances observed (37.8% of success in the memory
question) in Wimmer and Perner (1983) for children between 3
and 4 may not be the result of the difficulty of the task but instead
8It was only children 4 years-old (no younger children had answered the ToM
question correctly).
9The reality question, in this context, looks like a violation of the principle of
informativeness (Grices Maxim of Quantity, 1975;Ducrot’s law of exhaustiveness,
1980/2008) which requires that each participant in a conversation answer their
partner’s utterance with an appropriate quantity of information (neither too little
nor too much). If multiple experimental clues question the complete acquisition
of this principle at the age of 3 (Conti and Camras, 1984; Noveck, 2001; Eskritt
et al., 2008), other studies indicate that some children of that age show skills like
adapting their communicative behavior to the state of knowledge of their partners
(O’Neill, 1996; Dunham et al., 2000; Ferrier et al., 2000). Perner and Leekam (1986)
show that from the age of 3, children prefer mentioning first the most informative
element and avoid mentioning elements already known by their listener.
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Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
be the result of the ambiguity of the question for their age. Older
children, because of their conversational experience, may more
readily reinterpret the memory question to be controlling their
initial answer to the ToM question10.
3.2. The Robot-Pupil Solution
There is an important literature showing the advantages of
using a humanoid NAO robot in social interactions with young
children, especially in situations of learning by teaching (see
Jamet et al., 2018). Studies have shown that in conversational
interaction with an artificial agent, even completely virtual
ones, humans automatically detect pragmatic violations of their
speaker (Jacquet et al., 2018; Jacquet et al., 2019a,b,c; Lockshin
and Williams, 2020). It was shown that children as young as
two can be susceptible to the conversational violations of a
robot (Ferrier et al., 2000). Recent studies (Yasumatsu et al.,
2017; Martin et al., 2020a,b) also showed that the natural and
spontaneous propensity of young children to try being useful
extends to humanoid robots seeming to be in difficulty. It seems
that 3 years-old children assign mental states to a robot (Di Dio
et al., 2018, 2020a; Marchetti et al., 2018). Di Dio et al. (2020a)
observed in 3 years-old children who had already developed a
first-order ToM skill a tendency to represent the emotional state
of a robot in terms of mental states. For these authors, there could
be an attempt to anthropomorphize the robot on the emotional
dimension which, at the age of 3, could be particularly salient.
This suggests that young children are eager to think about the
robot mind in the same way they do about the human mind
(Di Dio et al., 2018). The NAO robot was also used to study the
endowment effect in adults (Masson et al., 2015, 2016; Masson
et al., 2017a,b).
The effectiveness of our “mentor-child” context11 was tested
with children between 5 and 6 in the class inclusion task and
successfully made the question of class inclusion more relevant
for the child when it was asked (Masson et al., 2017a; Jamet
et al., 2018). We hypothesize that the “mentor-child” context
should similarly decrease the ambiguity of the ToM question to
make it clearer that it is a request about the mental states of the
character Maxi. The performance of preschool children should
then be significantly improved without changing the original
explicit FBT. Should this be observed, we would conclude that
the understanding of false beliefs develops before the age of 4
and that the abilities of young children are underestimated due
to pragmatic factors.
We also believe that the “mentor-child” context can keep
the control questions unambiguous. Therefore, we expect to
have a rate of correct responses to the control questions that
should be roughly equivalent to that of older children in the
standard context.
10It can be noted that this interpretation of the memory question (an expectation
of the experimenter to be controlling the answer to the ToM question) requires
skills of second order ToM.
11Since the “ignorant,” “naive,” and “slow” robot was only there to strengthen the
child’s impression to be the one with the knowledge, its presence will be implied
each time we refer to the “mentor-child” context.
4. EXPERIMENT: EXPLICIT FALSE BELIEF
TASK IN THE MENTOR-CHILD CONTEXT
4.1. Materials and Methods
4.1.1. Participants
We recruited 62 native French children in preschool at “Les Petits
Princes” in Versailles, France. The sample chosen in the classes
was composed of 34 girls and 28 boys, from 38 months-old (3
years and 2 months) to 49 months-old (4 years and 1 month)12.
The mean age of children was 44 months-old (N=62, M=44
months-old, SD =2.82 months-old)13. The children were
randomly assigned a condition depending on their age and
gender. These conditions were “human experimenter” (“human”
condition) and “robot experimenter” (“robot” condition). Each
condition contained 31 children between 38 months-old and 49
months-old (N=31, M=44 months-old, SD =3.47
months-old for the “human” condition and N=31, M=44
months-old, SD =3.09 months-old for the “robot” condition).
4.1.2. Materials
The story “Maxi and the chocolate” was shown to the child with
the clips displayed in Figure 1. Each clip was 6.4 ×5.8 cm (2.5
×2.3 in). The clips were shown in a black and opaque folder
containing a cardboard spacer in A4 format (21 ×29.7 cm or
8.3 ×11.7 in). All three clips of the task were attached to the
cardboard spacer in advance. The robot used in this experiment
was a 58 cm tall (23 in) NAO robot created by Aldebaran Robotics
(Aldebaran version 4—“Evolution”). It has a moving head, arms
and hands, each with three fingers, allowing it to point at the clips
of the story to punctuate its discourse with gestures. NAO is also
equipped with a microphone and speakers to communicate with
humans. The robot was remotely controlled by the experimenter
using a computer, but its gestures and speech were recorded in
advance. They could see the child thanks to a camera in the eyes
of the robot. The movements and the speech sections triggered
in real time avoided having too much variability between the
different participants, while still making it possible to make the
answers of the robot fit those of the child. We chose to remotely
control the robot for logistical reasons: even though NAO does
have the ability to recognize speech making it possible for it to
autonomously react, the behaviors of children can sometimes
be unpredictable. Some flexibility was needed to reproduce with
fluidity a natural conversation with a human. Moreover, children
12Written informed consent to participate in this study was provided by the
participants’ legal guardian/next of kin. All data was collected anonymously.
The experiment was reviewed and approved by the Ethics Committee
of the CHArt Laboratory. The Ethics statement can be obtained here:
https://osf.io/wk4af?view_only=d8d2e16f39ea4186b994e2468a7408cd.
13The initial sample contained five classes of preschool children for a total of 70
children from 34 to 49 months-old. We had at least one 34 months-old child,
one 35 months-old child, and so on, in each of the two conditions. During the
experiment, we noticed that 3 children in the “robot” condition (the youngest: 34,
35, and 36 months-old) became really scared when the NAO robot started moving,
lifting its head and looking at the child. The movement of the robot is not as fluid
as that of a human, and the noise of the motors is quite noticeable. In consequence
these three children had to be removed from the condition. In order to keep the
conditions homogeneous in terms of age, we removed one child under 3 years-old
in the “robot” condition who had succeeded in the task, and all 4 youngest children
in the “human” condition, who had all failed in the task.
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Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
could sometimes speak too low to be understood by the robot,
which would have made the interaction impossible. Finally, the
robot also allowed a better standardization of the enunciation
context thanks to its intonations and utterances being strictly
identical across all participants. To make NAO more childish and
less intimidating, its voice was manipulated so that it had a higher
pitch and spoke more slowly. NAO was programmed to blink
randomly during the experiment to strengthen its humanness.
4.1.3. Procedure
Before the beginning of the experiment one member of the
research team, that we call the companion, was welcomed into
the class and gave their name. Children were sitting in a circle
in front of the teacher. She explained that this new person was
there to make all the children of the class work on a task, a bit like
teacher. The procedure in both conditions was subdivided into
two sequential steps: the priming step and the explicit FBT.
4.1.3.1. Human Condition
In this condition the companion told the children they would be
participating in an activity if they agreed. After this introduction
each child was guided to the location of the experiment, in a
quiet multi-purpose room of the school. During the walk, the
companion told the child the didactic contract: “You’re about
to listen to a story, like in class, and my colleague [name of the
experimenter] will ask you some questions. You will need to
answer them.” The companion then asked for the agreement of
the child. If the child agreed, the child then entered the room
without the companion and stayed with the experimenter.
The experimenter then introduced themselves to the child
who was seated on a chair in front them. The child’s ability to
correctly name the two colors (blue and green) was checked
before the main task14. The false belief story was then verbally
told and illustrated with clips, which allowed non-verbal answers
for children which preferred to point at their answer instead of
saying them.
If the child’s answer to the ToM question was the green
cupboard, the experimenter pointed at it on the clip and said
“ah it is there.” If the child did not change their initial answer,
the answer was considered to be correct. When the child instead
gave the incorrect answer, no confirmation was required, and the
answer was immediately considered to be false.
The reality question and the memory question were then
asked (respectively following the success and failure to the
ToM question).
Finally, the experimenter thanked the child, and the
companion guided them back to the classroom while
congratulating them.
4.1.3.2. Robot Condition
In this condition, the companion explained that they came with
a NAO robot. They told the class NAO needed the children’s
help because it knew nothing while they all knew a lot. If one
child doubted of their knowledge, the companion told them that
they were learning many things in class but also that they already
knew a lot. More importantly: they knew more than the robot.
14In both conditions all children correctly named the two colors.
The companion then asked if the children agreed to teach things
to NAO15.
Like in the “Human” condition, the companion guided each
child individually from the class to the location of the experiment
and told them the didactic contract: “Your job is to teach
lots of new things to NAO. NAO is a little robot who knows
nothing. NAO needs you to learn new things. NAO doesn’t know
anything. You will be his teacher. Do you agree to be his teacher?”
To make the child understand NAO’s ignorance the companion
pointed at the child’s clothes, or various items in the location of
the experiment. They asked the child to name them, which was
done without any difficulty, and then they told the child:
“You see, NAO doesn’t know all that. If NAO asks you weird,
strange questions, you must answer him. Remember that he
knows nothing. If NAO tells you strange things, or if he makes
mistakes, you correct him16. You are his teacher. Do you agree to
be NAO’s teacher [name of the child]?”
If the child agreed, the companion let the child enter the
experiment room and left the child “alone” with the robot (see
Figure 2). This is an especially important detail with the robot.
Indeed, should the companion remain in the room, the child
may be tempted to answer the robot in the same way they would
with a human experimenter because of the presence of an adult
in the room. Pragmatic interpretations would then be modified.
The actual experimenter was hidden behind a screen, without
the child knowing about it, and remotely controlled NAO using
a laptop.
NAO introduced itself to the child. It asked if the child
agreed to be its teacher because he was there to “learn many
things.” Once again, if the child did not agree, the experiment
stopped. The robot then asked the child if they can help it learn
colors. NAO then pointed the colored cardboard sheets and
made mistakes (for example: NAO said “That’s yellow?” while
designating the blue cardboard, making it more believable the
fact that NAO did not know much and thus strengthening the
role of the child as a teacher). To further strengthen the naive
aspect of the robot, NAO insisted on its ignorance all along the
experiment (e.g., “Alright, I had not understood that. I am really
stupid.” It is important to note that great care was given to not
overdoing the “stupidity” of the robot. Indeed, if its mistakes
became too predictable, there was a great risk of losing the
child’s interest in teaching it anything. A child could quickly have
inferred that “NAO will make mistakes no matter what I tell him.”
which could have biased the child’s experience in the task if it had
not been controlled.
NAO initiated the story “Maxi and the Chocolate” by telling
the child “A man told me a story that I did not understand. Do
you want to help me?” Identically to the “Human” condition,
NAO told the story and then asked the ToM question and the
control question.
The answer to the ToM question was considered to be
correct if the robot was corrected by the child when it
15A script of the interaction between a “mentor-child” and the NAO robot, written
as a clinical and critical Piagetian interview (Ducret, 2016) can be found at
https://osf.io/z5s7k/?view_only=d8d2e16f39ea4186b994e2468a7408cd.
16The companion insisted on this specific point.
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Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
FIGURE 2 | Robot experimenter and materials for the “Robot” condition. The NAO robot is seated on a table in front of the child.
made a mistake trying to repeat the answer. For example,
if the child answered that Maxi will look for the chocolate
in the green cupboard (initial position), NAO said: “Ah
thanks, so if I understood well the chocolate is in the
blue cupboard.” If the child corrected NAO and said: “No,
the chocolate is there.” (indicating the green cupboard) or
“No, it is in the green one.” the answer was considered
to be correct. Note that, just like in the human condition,
the child could also point at the clips directly instead of
answering verbally.
Once the task was over, NAO thanked the child for being
its teacher “Thank you, you’ve been an awesome teacher.
I’ve learned many things thanks to you!” and told them
goodbye. The companion then came to bring the child back
to the classroom. Sometimes the teacher asked how the
task went. The companion congratulated the child for the
quality of their teaching. They told the rest of the class
that NAO still needed to work to learn things. This way,
the fact that NAO needed help was progressively very well-
communicated to the whole class while they did their usual
class activities.
4.2. Results
In this experiment, the dependent variable was a dichotomous
variable which modalities were interpreted in terms of success
or failure. According to the procedure used by Wellman
and Liu (2004), the child’s response was a success when
they produced correct answers to both the ToM question
and the reality question. This variable will be noted below:
TR (ToM and Reality). We also analyzed the data from a
less conservative perspective (Wimmer and Perner, 1983) by
interpreting the success as being simply a correct answer to
the ToM question. This second version of the dependent
variable will be symbolized by the letter T. Finally, we also
analyzed the answers to the memory question for children
who had failed to answer the ToM question correctly.
This variable will be designated by ¬TM (Not ToM and
Memory)17.
The independent variable (noted C) had two modalities:
“Human” vs. “Robot.” We also tested the influence of two other
variables: the sex of the child (noted S, with two modalities:
Girls vs. Boys), and the age of the child in months (noted
A, numerical variable ranging from 38 to 49 months-old). In
the first step of the analysis, we adjusted a linear model on
our data with a link logit function and a binomial distribution
of the errors. We applied this treatment to all three versions
of the dependent variable TR,Tand ¬TM. For all of them
we included, in the linear predictor of the models, the main
effects of each of the three factors C,S, and A, as well as all
the possible interactions which includes the triple interaction.
We refer to these saturated models by using the following
expressions: firstly TR "CSA, secondly T"CSA
and thirdly ¬TM "CSA. The “"” symbol refers to
the influence, supposed or real, of the independent variables
on the dependent variable while the “” symbol indicates that
all the possible interactions between the independent variables
are taken into account. We then used a procedure of automatic
backward simplification on all the saturated models to lead to the
corresponding final models.
The principal characteristics of these four models are shown in
Table 1. Results show, regardless of the version of the dependent
variable (TR,T, and ¬TM), that the simplification model
systematically terminated on a final model containing only the
Cfactor. This means that the success rate for ToM, defined
either as the conservative model (TR) or as a more permissive
17The complete R script of the analyses is available at
https://osf.io/34hzn/?view_only=d8d2e16f39ea4186b994e2468a7408cd and the
data itself is available at https://osf.io/wzx7g/?view_only=d8d2e16f39ea4186b994
e2468a7408cd.
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Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
TABLE 1 | Main characteristics of the data-adjusted models.
Models Residual deviance ddl AIC
TR "CSA(saturated) 69.86 54 85.86
TR "C(final) 73.15 60 77.15
T"CSA(saturated) 73.37 54 89.37
T"C(final) 77.57 60 81.57
¬TM "CSA(saturated) 40.06 28 56.06
¬TM "C(final) 43.00 34 47.00
For the different versions of the dependant variable (TR, T, and ¬TM), the simplification of the saturated models led to final models containing only the predictive variable C (the influence
of the experimental conditions). In all situations, the resulting models are more parsimonious with a reduction of the AIC (Akaike Information Criterion) of about 8 points.
model (T), remained completely explainable by the condition
(i.e., “Human” vs. “Robot”). The same was also observed for
the final model of the memory question (¬TM). Therefore, in
our study neither the sex (S) nor the age (A) of the children
can significantly improve the prediction of the success we
observed. Thus, in the rest of the paper these two variables will
be omitted.
A summary of the data we collected is shown in Table 2.
Table 3 shows the coefficients associated with each condition
for the three resulting models required to estimate the effect size
of the condition (C).
The model TR "Chas a significant coefficient (β=
1.23, p<0.05). This coefficient is also significant for the model
T"C(β=1.38, p<0.05). We show in Table 3 the
odds ratio (OR) corresponding to the βcoefficients. We obtained
OR =3.43 for the model TR "C, which means that the chances
of success for a child in the “Robot” condition are almost 3.5
times greater than that of children in the “Human” condition.
Regarding the model T"C, we obtained OR =3.98 indicating
that, when simplifying the success criterion, a child was four
times more likely to succeed in the “Robot” condition than one
in the “Human” condition. We also observed a tendency for
children who failed the ToM question to answer the memory
question with more success when it was asked by the robot
(β=1.62, p=0.06). While not significant we can still point
out that children were five times more likely to correctly answer
with the robot than they were with the human (OR =5.04).
Table 2 shows the distribution of the participants depending
on the condition and on whether they succeeded in the task
(depending on the criterion used to define success). An unilateral
proportion test with no continuity correction reveals that the
success rate for TR is significantly different from chance (χ2=
2.77, df =1, p<0.05). When only looking at the ToM
question (T) the test does not show a significant difference
(χ2=0.4, df =1, p>0.05). However, as explained
above, an answer scored as “correct” for the ToM question
needed to be confirmed. Thus, we can probably think that
the 58% of children in the “Robot” condition did not simply
give the correct answer at random. Only 2 children changed
their choices for ToM question in the “Robot” condition (and
were counted as a wrong answer for ToM) and none in the
“Human” condition.
5. DISCUSSION
The goal of this study was to propose a new methodology of
the explicit FBT. With it, we hoped to inhibit the erroneous
interpretations made by 3 years-old children regarding the ToM
question. Our “mentor-child” context seems to have changed the
prevailing interpretation of the ToM question in the way we
hoped: a request to report the false belief of the character. The
young children who participated in our study did better in the
“Robot” condition than those in the “Human” condition. This
result has three important consequences:
1. It provides new experimental arguments for a pragmatic
explanation of the failure of young children in explicit FBT
(Cummings, 2013; Helming et al., 2014, 2016; Westra, 2017;
Westra and Carruthers, 2017; Frank, 2018).
2. It indicates that a significant proportion of pre-school children
can correctly answer the original ToM question.
3. This result, following those of Jamet et al. (2018) on
Piaget’s class inclusion task18, supports the relevance of our
methodology to disambiguate the experimenter’s expectations
through their question in developmental tasks.
In our study, the performance of children in the conjunction of
the ToM and reality questions was significantly improved, with
children in the “Robot” condition being about 3.5 times more
likely to succeed than those in the “Human” condition. Moreover,
in the “Human” condition the performances were comparable
to those observed in the literature (Wimmer and Perner, 1983;
Hogrefe et al., 1986; Perner et al., 1987). The previous result
is also amplified if, as Wimmer and Perner (1983), one adopts
a laxer interpretation of the success. Indeed, looking only at
the recorded responses to the ToM question, our results show
that children belonging to the “Robot” condition are 4 times
more likely to succeed. Furthermore, although we focused on the
performance of pre-school children with participants between 3
and 4 years-old, it is interesting to note that the success rate in
our “Robot” condition (58%) is similar to what Wimmer and
18Jamet et al. (2018) randomly assigned 40 children (between 5 and 6 years-
old) to two conditions similar to those we created for the present study
(“Human Experimenter” vs. “Ignorant NAO Robot”). The authors observed a clear
improvement in performance in the “Ignorant NAO Robot” condition: one child
out of five answered correctly in the “Human Experimenter” condition, and more
than six children out of ten in the “Ignorant NAO Robot” condition.
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Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
TABLE 2 | Distribution of the children’s answers depending on the experimental condition (N=62).
Conditions (C) Questions “Human” “Robot” Total “Human” “Robot” Total
ToM: “Where will Maxi look for the chocolate?” “Green cupboard” (T) “Blue cupboard” (¬T)
8 (26%) 18 (58%) 26 (42%) 23 (74%) 13 (42%) 36 (58%)
Reality: “Where is the chocolate really?” “Blue cupboard” (TR)
6 (19%) 14 (45%) 20 (32%)
Memory: “Do you remember where Maxi put the
chocolate in the beginning?”
“Green cupboard” (¬TM)
12 (39%) 11 (35%) 23 (35%)
Success rate for the control question depending on the
ToM answer
(R/T) (M/¬T)
75% 78% 77% 52% 85% 63%
TR (correct joint answer to both the ToM & reality questions), T (correct answer to the ToM question), and ¬TM (correct answer to the memory question for those who only gave an
incorrect answer to the ToM question). The breakdown does not take into account the variables sex (S) and age (A) of children because, as the regression analyses have shown, neither
of these two variables affects the probability of success to the ToM question. NRobot =31,NHuman =31.
TABLE 3 | Estimated βcoefficients associated with belonging to the conditions for the three models.
Models β(OR) SD (β)z-Value p-Value
TR "C1.23 (3.43) 0.58 2.12 0.03*
T"C1.38 (3.98) 0.55 2.52 0.01*
¬TM "C1.62 (5.04) 0.87 1.85 0.06
The Odds Ratio corresponding to each of the coefficients are shown between parentheses. Since the link function of the models is a logit, calculating the exponential of the coefficients
is the only thing required to get the OR.
*p 0.05.
Perner (1983) considers to be a successful completion of the task
for children between 4 and 6 years-old (57%). However, this
proportion remains lower than the one recorded by the same
authors for children between 6 and 9 years-old (89%). We can
point out that this success rate is not as sensational as those
observed in some studies (such as the 90–100% observed in
Rubio-Fernández and Geurts, 2013, 2016). To our knowledge, we
are the first to find such a performance without any modification
being made to the initial paradigm with the same scenario,
the same questions and the same procedure for analyzing the
answers given by the child. Besides, the experimental protocol
also considers several methodological criticisms made in the
studies cited above (Wellman et al., 2001; Wellman and Liu, 2004;
Kammermeier and Paulus, 2018; Priewasser et al., 2020). Indeed,
we considered a correct answer to be when the child answered
both questions (ToM and reality) correctly. Our participants
were also randomly assigned to the “Robot” and “Human”
conditions in a homogeneous way.
Replicating our procedure with children between 4 and 9
would be important and interesting in order to see if our
methodology produces a similar improvement for the 4–6 years-
old age group or if this level of performance corresponds to a
plateau for children below the age of 6. In the first case, the
traditional results found in the literature of explicit FBT, showing
a progression with age, would not qualitatively change but simply
be shifted toward younger age groups. It would then be essential
to replicate our procedure with children between 2 and 3 to
decide at what age the explicit FBT can start to become successful.
In the second case, with a limited success rate before the age
of 6, the 6–7 age group would be the pivotal age for reaching
almost a 90% success rate with explicit FBT. This would imply
that important pragmatic and/or cognitive capacities would
still be lacking at the age of 5, preventing a total success at
this age. This would not necessarily contradict our pragmatic
approach. Indeed, numerous studies report that 6 is the pivotal
age to be able to correctly generate relevance implicatures (Bosco
and Gabbatore, 2017; Grigoroglou and Papafragou, 2017). As
explained above, explicit FBT are complex as they require a “triple
attribution of mental states” (Helming et al., 2014, 2016; Westra
and Carruthers, 2017). They imply not only that the child must
take into account the perspective of the character of the story but
also that of their interlocutor, who is an adult experimenter in
the standard test, since the child infers expectations from them
and finally their own perspective. Consequently, this task would
not be a first order task, but rather a second order task, thus
explaining the threshold of a 60% success rate.
It is also interesting to look specifically at how the children
responded to the control questions in our “mentor-child”
context. As was shown by Perner and Wimmer (1985) the two
types of success coding (with or without the reality question)
slightly modify the results downwards without changing the
interpretation: the chances of success in the “Robot” condition
relative to that in the “Human” condition went from 4 times
higher to about 3.5 times higher. The success rate decreased
when the answer to the reality question was considered. In terms
of proportions, both conditions had a similar success rate in
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Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
the reality question (75% in “Human” and 77.7% in “Robot”
conditions). This may confirm that the emphasis on the “slow”
trait of the robot allows us to disambiguate a large part of the
reality question. For the memory question, as predicted, we found
a higher success rate (85%) in the “Robot” condition which is
similar to the 83.7% observed in Wimmer and Perner (1983) with
children between 4 and 5 years-old. This result seems to confirm
our hypothesis that this question is noticeably ambiguous in the
standard context for preschool children.
The fact that this “mentor-child” context works with 3 years-
old children also provides new arguments in favor of the use of a
humanoid robot as a tool in experimental research on children
and adults. Our study did not have as its main objective to
measure the importance of the robot tool itself but rather the
influence of the context it allowed to produce. However, it would
be important in a future study to see if there is a specific robot
effect in our results that can stand out on its own. We can
run the experiment with puppets or other objects representing
an “ignorant,” “naive,” and “slow” entity (in an unpublished
exploratory study on the class inclusion task Jamet, Saïbou-
Dumont and Baratgin (2018) obtain, from children of French
Guyana, similar performances to those obtained in Jamet et al.
(2018) with the use of a puppet or a man disguised as a robot
instead of the NAO robot19). A second possibility would be to run
the study with a knowledgeable and intelligent “NAO teacher” in
addition to the human experimenter and to the slow robot. Many
studies have shown that children as young as 3 years-old accepted
the NAO robot as a possible teacher (Rosanda and Istenic Starcic,
2020). Oranç and Küntay (2020) observed in children from 3
to 6 years-old a clear preference to ask the robot questions
about machines, and less about biology and psychology. Thus,
one could expect that in this situation children would be even
less inclined to interpret the ToM question correctly as being a
question about Maxi’s beliefs. All this seems to indicate that our
results are largely the consequence of the “mentor-child” context.
Our study also brings two important new elements on child-
robot interaction. Firstly, our study seems to confirm that
preschool children attribute beliefs to the robot as was also
indicated in recent studies (Di Dio et al., 2018, 2020a; Marchetti
et al., 2018). Secondly, in our study the child can behave like
a mentor, with the motivation to help a robot understand a
story. This helping behavior still happened even though physical
interactions are quite limited. Indeed, the robot did not have a
great autonomy of movement when seated in front of the child
and it displayed few expressions (the NAO robot cannot smile
and its facial expressions are very limited: only its eyes can change
colors to signify an emotion). This is coherent with results from
Martin et al. (2020a,b) which indicate that the helping behavior of
children does not seem to be conditioned to the level of animated
autonomy nor to the friendly expressions of the robot’s voice.
While our methodology seems to work for an interaction with
children older than 3 years and 2 months, children between 5
and 6 years-old, and also with adults (Masson et al., 2015, 2016;
Masson et al., 2017a,b), children under the age of 3 did not
19Experiments were carried out during the MIN formation of teachers requested
by the rector of the academy of French Guyana.
agree to stay “alone” with NAO. It is possible that the choice
of a humanoid robot may trouble young children. Di Dio et al.
(2020b) shows that 3 years-old children tend to trust humans
more than robots, as opposed to 7 years-old children. Manzi et al.
(2020) showed that children of 5, 7, and 9 years-old differently
assign mental states to two humanoid robots, NAO and Robovie,
differing on their level of anthropomorphism. It is possible that,
for very young children under 3 years-old, the NAO robot may
not be the most adequate tool (see Damiano et al., 2015, for a
review of the different types of robots). This would explain the
low number of studies with children of this age. Recent reviews
on the interactions between neuro-typical children and a robot
(Jamet et al., 2018; Neumann, 2020; van Straten et al., 2020)
indicate that only one study was conducted using NAO and a
group of children from 2 to 8 years-old (Yasumatsu et al., 2017).
The few other studies conducted on 2 years-old either used the
tiny humanoid robot QRIO that is smaller than a 2 years-old child
(Tanaka et al., 2007), the iRobiQ robot that looks more like a toy
(Hsiao et al., 2015), or robots specifically designed to be enjoyed
by young children like the stuffed dragon robot Dragonbot
(Kory Westlund et al., 2017) and the RUBI-4 (Movellan et al.,
2009). Thus, should we decide to do a longitudinal study from 2
to 9 years-old using our contextual procedure we would need to
study which robot is the most relevant to play the role of a rather
slow and ignorant being for all ages.
6. CONCLUSION
The essential proposition that has been developed and tested
in our study is that the answer to the ToM question
crucially depends on the “conversational logic” at play in
the contextualized interactions between the experimenter and
the child. This interaction shapes the child’s interpretation of
the question. Our contextual modification pragmatic filters the
ToM question, removing irrelevant interpretations. The standard
paradigm forces the child to perform a relevance search to
interpret an ambiguous question asked by an expert (with a
status like that of a teacher) within the limits of the child’s
own meta-cognitive knowledge. In our “mentor-child” context
the child answers an unequivocal question about the beliefs
of the protagonist of the story asked by a somewhat slow
entity who needs their help. Here, the 3 years-old child can
answer correctly even if their meta-cognitive knowledge is poorly
developed. This procedure helps us become more “competent”
speaker-experimenters (Sperber, 1994) as it offers a tool to
place ourselves at the level of the young child’s interpretation
strategy. This allows them to realize what is relevant to answer
the question correctly. For similar reasons we believe that this
procedure may also help with the understanding of the second-
order ToM (Perner and Wimmer, 1985). It could reduce the
ambiguity of the question of the experimenter which exists
in many experimental paradigms. Results of Lombardi et al.
(2018) indeed indicate, using a dialogical perspective, that
a considerable part of the supposed failures observed with
children in the second order task are in fact the result of
an adverse pragmatic context. In addition to the Piagetian
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Baratgin et al. Pragmatics in the False-Belief Task
tasks of length and number conservation (McGarrigle and
Donaldson, 1974), volume conservation (Jamet et al., 2014), or
class inclusion (Politzer, 2016), there are a variety of experimental
paradigms that lend themselves well to our disambiguation
methodology. The “mentor-child” context could also facilitate
some studies with atypically developing participants, such as
individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder who show
both deficient performance on the false belief task (Baron-
Cohen, 1997) and in language pragmatics (Angeleri et al., 2016).
Finally, our methodology also offers new clues on the relevance
of human-robot interaction, and in particular on child-robot
interaction. More studies should most certainly focus on the
interaction between children and robots, taking in consideration
the beliefs they associate to these tools, and their effect on
well-known psychological results.
DATA AVAILABILITY STATEMENT
The datasets analyzed for this study can be found in the Open
Science Framework repository at the following address https://
osf.io/ey4n5/?view_only=d8d2e16f39ea4186b994e2468a7408cd.
ETHICS STATEMENT
The studies involving human participants were reviewed and
approved by M. Charles El-nouty, Professeur des Universités en
Mathématiques, LAGA UMR7539, Université Paris 13: President
of the Committee. M. Jean-Yves Henry, Chirurgien-Dentiste
diplômé de l’Université Paris 7; M. Michel Dionnet, Chef de
cuisine, Membre titulaire de l’Académie Culinaire de France;
M. Fabrice Gutnick, MCF associé en Sciences de l’Éducation,
Université Jules Vernes Amiens, Psychologue du travail; Mme
Dominique Klarsy Médecin du travail. Written informed consent
to participate in this study was provided by the participants’ legal
guardian/next of kin.
AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
JB and FJ: conceptual elaboration. JB, FJ, and MD-S:
design of the study. MD-S and FJ: data collection. J-LS:
data analysis. JB and MD-S: draft of the manuscript.
JB, BJ, and FJ: critical revision of the manuscript. All
authors contributed to the article and approved the
submitted version.
FUNDING
We thank the P-A-R-I-S Association for the technical
and financial help we received as well as the CHArt
laboratory which participated in financing the publication
of the article in open access. P-A-R-I-S Funding
number: 2020-0301728-5 CHArt-Paris8 Funding number:
2020-0331087-0.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
We would like to express our gratitude to the National Education
Inspector Eugénie Montes of Versailles and to the pedagogical
team of Les Petits Princes de Versailles school for welcoming
us, for their involvement and for their interest in this research
project. We would like to thank in particular the headmaster Mrs.
Wiklacz, as well as the teachers of the school: Mrs. Moussette,
Combe, Dupuy, and Delehaye. We also thank Natalia Obrochta,
Olivier Masson, and Youri Minne for their help during the pre-
tests of this experiment. We also thank Research Director (DR)
Béatrice Desgranges and Anne Chevalier, copyright manager of
Revue de Neuropsychologie, for their authorization to republish
Figure 1, originally from Duval et al. (2011). We would finally
like to thank Andrew Hromek for proof-reading the paper
and Guy Politzer for his careful review of the first draft of
this document.
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Conflict of Interest: The authors declare that the research was conducted in the
absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a
potential conflict of interest.
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... Le paradigme classique est utilisé avec des tâches emblématiques de la psychologie. Il a été testé notamment sur la notion d'inclusion de classe de Piaget [20] et sur la théorie de l'esprit [4]. ...
... L'interprétation de l'enfant sur l'attente de l'expérimentateur se fondera d'une part, sur ce qui est le plus simple, sur ce qui a le moindre coût cognitif et d'autre part, sur ce qui est le plus pertinent de son point de vue [44]. Cette capacité à chercher l'intention implicite de l'interlocuteur se manifeste très tôt dans le développement [4]. Le développement des compétences pragmatiques ne peut pas se réduire au seul accroissement du lexique. ...
... Ainsi pour l'inclusion de tâche, l'enfant interprétera la question : « Y a-t-il plus de marguerites ou plus de fleurs » comme une attente de la part de l'expérimentateur de savoir si il sait compter. C'est pourquoi il répondra : « Il y plus de marguerites que de fleurs », désignant ainsi la sous classe de fleurs la plus importante [42] et dans la tâche de fausse croyance qu'il a bien compris ou se trouve à la fin de l'histoire le chocolat [4]. ...
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Les piètres performances des enfants observées dans des tâches emblématiques en psychologie du développement, en psychologie cognitive ou sociale sont analysées du point de vue de la pragmatique conversationnelle née des interactions expérimentateur adulte/enfant. Une question posée par un expérimentateur, adulte, a un enfant peut apparaître comme ambiguë. Cette question ambiguë pour l'enfant peut rece-voir différentes interprétations basées sur une recherche de pertinence. En effet, en fonction de leur âge, les enfants attri-buent différentes intentions à l'interrogateur. Ces intentions attribuées s'inscrivent dans les limites de leur propre connais-sance métacognitive. Le paradigme de « l'enfant mentor d'un robot ignorant » est proposé. Il permet de désambiguïser les attributions prêter à l'expérimentateur. Pour cela, (1) l'ex-périmentateur adulte est remplacé par un robot iconique (le robot NAO) présenté comme « ignorant » , « naïf » et « lent » mais qui désire apprendre et (2) l'enfant est placé dans le rôle d'un « mentor » (du sachant). Plusieurs résultats récents montrent l'intérêt de ce nouveau paradigme pour la psychologie. Les performances des enfants sont beaucoup plus précoces que celles indiquées dans la littérature lors de l'interaction classique entre un expérimentateur et un enfant.
... Reciprocally, the only reason why people answer questions is because they assume people who ask them do not already know the answers and will learn (their mental representations will change once the answer is given to them). Evidence indicate that humans acquire this capacity very early in their life [30], [31] and the presence or absence of this ability in other species is still a strong debate in the scientific community [32], [33], which is not entirely surprising given the difficulty in finding ways to explicitly communicate the question without ambiguity to young humans [30]. ...
... Reciprocally, the only reason why people answer questions is because they assume people who ask them do not already know the answers and will learn (their mental representations will change once the answer is given to them). Evidence indicate that humans acquire this capacity very early in their life [30], [31] and the presence or absence of this ability in other species is still a strong debate in the scientific community [32], [33], which is not entirely surprising given the difficulty in finding ways to explicitly communicate the question without ambiguity to young humans [30]. ...
Conference Paper
The Turing Test was initially suggested as a way to give an answer to the question “Can machines think”. Since then, it has been heavily criticized by philosophers and computer scientists both as irrelevant, or simply inefficient in order to evaluate a machine’s intelligence. But while arguments against it certainly highlight some of the test’s flaws, they also reveal the confusion that exists between thinking and intelligence. While we will not attempt here to define the concept of intelligence, we will instead show that such a definition becomes irrelevant if the Turing Test is instead considered to be a test of the humanness of a conversational partner instead, an experimental paradigm that can be used in order to investigate human inferences and expectations. We will review studies which use the Turing Test this way, not only in computer sciences where it is commonly used to evaluate the humanness of a chatbot but also its uses in the field of psychology where it can be used to understand human reasoning in conversation either with a chatbot or with another human.
... This new experimental paradigm has been successfully tested with 5-6 years old children in the class inclusion task [13,21] and in 3-4 years old children in a theory of mind task [3]. These studies also provide two important new insights into child-robot interaction. ...
... This new experimental paradigm has been successfully tested with 5-6 years old children in the class inclusion task [10,18] and in 3-4 years old children in a theory of mind task [2]. These studies also provide two important new insights into child-robot interaction. ...
Chapter
Human-robot interaction has played an increasingly significant role in more recent research involving the Theory of Mind (ToM). As the use of robot facilitators increases, questions arise regarding the implications of their involvement in a research setting. This work addresses the effects of a humanoid robot facilitator in a ToM assessment. This paper analyzes subjects’ performances on tasks meant to test ToM as those tasks are delivered by human or robot facilitators. Various modalities of data were collected: performance on ToM tasks, subjects’ perceptions of the robot, results from a ToM survey, and response duration. This paper highlights the effects of human-robot interactions in ToM assessments, which ultimately leads to a discussion on the effectiveness of using robot facilitators in future human-subject research.KeywordsSocial roboticsHuman-robotic interactionTheory of Mind
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