Abstract

Recent evidence suggests that young infants, as well as nonhuman apes, can anticipate others' behavior based on their false beliefs. While such behaviors have been proposed to be accounted by simple associations between agents, objects, and locations, human adults are undoubtedly endowed with sophisticated theory of mind abilities. For example, they can attribute mental contents about abstract or non-existing entities, or beliefs whose content is poorly specified. While such endeavors may be human specific, it is unclear whether the representational apparatus that allows for encoding such beliefs is present early in development. In four experiments we asked whether 15-month-old infants are able to attribute beliefs with underspecified content, update their content later, and maintain attributed beliefs that are unknown to be true or false. In Experiment 1, infants observed as an agent hid an object to an unspecified location. This location was later revealed in the absence or presence of the agent, and the object was then hidden again to an unspecified location. Then the infants could search for the object while the agent was away. Their search was biased to the revealed location (that could be represented as the potential content of the agent's belief when she had not witnessed the re-hiding), suggesting that they (1) first attributed an underspecified belief to the agent, (2) later updated the content of this belief, and (3) were primed by this content in their own action even though its validity was unknown. This priming effect was absent when the agent witnessed the re-hiding of the object, and thus her belief about the earlier location of the object did not have to be sustained. The same effect was observed when infants searched for a different toy (Experiment 2) or when an additional spatial transformation was introduced (Experiment 4), but not when the spatial transformation disrupted belief updating (Experiment 3). These data suggest that infants' representational apparatus is prepared to efficiently track other agents' beliefs online, encode underspecified beliefs and define their content later, possibly reflecting a crucial characteristic of mature theory of mind: using a metarepresentational format for ascribed beliefs.