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J Exp Child Psychol. 2017 Jan;153:126-139. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2016.09.006. Epub 2016 Oct 12.

The influence of a bystander agent's beliefs on children's and adults' decision-making process.

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University of Erfurt, 99089 Erfurt, Germany. Electronic address:
University of Erfurt, 99089 Erfurt, Germany.


The ability to attribute and represent others' mental states (e.g., beliefs; so-called "theory of mind") is essential for participation in human social interaction. Despite a considerable body of research using tasks in which protagonists in the participants' attentional focus held false or true beliefs, the question of automatic belief attribution to bystander agents has received little attention. In the current study, we presented adults and 6-year-olds (N=92) with an implicit computer-based avoidance false-belief task in which participants were asked to place an object into one of three boxes. While doing so, we manipulated the beliefs of an irrelevant human-like or non-human-like bystander agent who was visible on the screen. Importantly, the bystander agent's beliefs were irrelevant for solving the task. Still, children's decision making was significantly influenced by the bystander agent's beliefs even if this was a non-human-like self-propelled object. Such an influence did not become obvious in adults' deliberate decisions but occurred only in their reaction times, which suggests that they also processed the bystander agent's beliefs but were able to suppress the influence of such beliefs on their behavior regulation. The results of a control study (N=53) ruled out low-level explanations and confirmed that self-propelledness of agents is a necessary factor for belief attribution to occur. Thus, not only do humans spontaneously ascribe beliefs to self-propelled bystander agents, but those beliefs even influence meaningful decisions in children.


Automatic belief tracking; Bystander agent; Decision making; Self-propelledness; Social cognition; Theory of mind

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