Does the Past Shape Anticipation for the Future?: Contributions of Age and Executive Function to Advanced Theory of Mind

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Abstract

A positive association between executive function (a set of higher order, self-regulatory cognitive skills) and theory of mind (beliefs about mental states) has been well documented during early childhood. As investigations extend beyond false belief understanding (that the mind can misrepresent reality), there is growing interest in examining contributions of executive function to more advanced aspects of theory of mind in older age groups. To add to this literature, we showed 4- to 10-year-olds and adults (N = 274) scenarios in which a perpetrator acted positively (P) and/or negatively (N) toward a focal character on two separate days (PP, NN, NP, and PN). Participants inferred focal characters’ future-oriented mental states upon seeing perpetrators for the third time. Children and adults also completed executive function measures (working memory and inhibitory control). Both age and executive function independently predicted higher life history theory of mind: Recognition that prior life experiences influence how individuals think, feel, and make decisions about the future.

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