Cognition and Development


Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development.

Cognitive Development - general term describing the development of all mental processes, in particular thinking, reasoning and our understanding of the world. Cognitive development continues throughout the lifespan. Psychologists are focused within childhood.

Piaget proposed that children do not know any less than adults do, instead children think entirely different from grown ups. Maturation and Environement is the key to how childrens thinking changes; as children get older, certain mental operations become possible, and at the same time, through interactions of the world.

Piaget looked at childrens learning, in particular at two aspects:

  • The role of motivation in development
  • The question of how knowledge develops
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Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development.

Schemas - A mental structure containing  all the infomation we have about one aspect of the world. They become more complex during development as we acquire more information about an item; developed from experience. Mental framework of beliefs and expectations that influence cognitive processing.

As children develop, they construct more detailed and complex mental representations of the world, these representation are stored as schemas. 

As adults, we also have schemas about abstract ideas like justice and morality.

Piaget claims children are born with small number of schemas, enough to allow them to interact with other people (sucking, crying). These are developed over time as a consequence of the child's interaction with its environment.

They can also construct new ones during infancy including 'me-schema' in which all childs knowledge about themselves is stored.

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Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development.

  • Motivation to learn

We are motivated to learn when our existing schemas do not allow us to make sense of something new, leading to

↪ Disequilibrium; creates motivation to learn as there is a sense of uncomfort. Children experience an imbalance between what is understood and what is encountered. 

To escape this mental state and adapt to new situation, the child learns and explores more through developing new shema or adapting old ones. This results to then being in the state of

↪ Equilibriation - A pleasant state of balance and occurs when experiences of the world match the state of our current schema

 - The preferred mental state. 

When new information is built into our understanding of a topic, it is done via assimilation or accomodation. 

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Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development.

  • How learning takes place

Process of learning is adapting to a new situation so that we understand it. New experiences creates disequilibrium because it doesnt fit into our schema as of yet.

Assimilation - When new experience is understood within existing shema. It doesnt radically change our understanding of the schema so we can incorporate the new experience into our existing schema.

E.g. Child with dog at home meets another breed of dog, the child will simply add the information about the dog into dog schema

Accommodation - When new experiences require major schema change. It is very different from our current schema so it involves the creation of a whole new schema or wholescale changes to existing ones. Child adapts existing schema in order to understand new information that doesnt appear to fit.

E.g. Child with pet cats who hasnt come across dogs (no dog schema) then has an encounter with a dog will initially try incorporate dog into cat schema. However, as the dog acts differently, the child needs to do something more dramatic than assimilation. Child will therefore accommodate by forming a seperate dog schema. As a result, state of equilibriation is achieved. 

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A +ve of this theory is that there is supporting evidence.

For instance, Howe et al put 9-12yr olds in groups to discuss how objects move down a slope. It was found that the level of childrens knowledge and understanding increased after the discussion. 

However, the children did not reach the same conclusions or pick up the same facts about movement down the slope.

This therefore supports Piagets idea that children learn through their own personal mental representations as suggested in the study that the children had different thought and opinions despite discussing and learning of the same item. 

Another +ve of Piagets ideas is that is has applications in education in the sense that revolutionised teaching.

For instance, early years' (Yr1 ect) classrooms learning is focused around play and discovering new aspects of the worlds.

Activity based classrooms allow children to learn in a more natural way. As children actively engage in tasks, this allow them to construct their own understanding of the curriculum. This replaced old fashioned classrooms whereby children sat silently in rows copying from the board.

This is therefore a strength as it has had a diect positive impact on education and so it enables us to continue to seek out active ways of allowing learning to occur. 


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  • A -ve is that Piaget underestimated  the role of other people involved in learning. 

For instance, Vygotsky argued that learning is more of a social process and advanced learning is possible only with the help of experts or peers - his theories suggests the role of others in learning is more central.

Although Piaget acknowledged teachers are important for setting up discovery situations for children, Piagets theory were not 'other people' of main focus - he saw learning in terms of what happens in the mind of the individual. 

This therefore suggests that Piagets theory is somewhat limited in its explanation of the cognitive development process - subjected to cognitive factors mainly. 

Another -ve is that the full role of language isnt recognised. 

For instance, Piaget perceives language as just a cognitive ability that develops in line with other abilities. 

Other researchers such as Vygotsky have placed a lot more importance on language development suggesting it is crucial to broader cognitive development.

So if language is central to learning and it is then not fully examined in Piagets theory, his theory is therefore limited in its validity.

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Piaget's Stages of Intellectual Development

1) Sensorimotor stage - 0-2yrs

Baby's focus is on physical sensations and basic coordination between what they see and their body movement. Learn via trial and error. 

Learn to co-ordinate sensory input (e.g. what they see) with motor actions (i.e. with hand movements) through circular reactions where they repeat same actions to test sensorimotor relationships.

Babies also come to understand that other people are seperate objects and they acquire some basic language.

At around 8 months, they develop object permanence

the understanding that objects still exist when theyre out of sight. Prior to this, babies lose interest in an object once they cant see it and no longer aware of its existence.

After 8 months children continue to look for the object, this suggests that children understand that objects continue to exist when removied from view. 

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Piaget's Stages of Intellectual Development

2) Pre-operational stage - 2-7yrs

Conservation - the basic mathematical understanding that quantity remains constant even when appearence of object changes. This is due to childs reliance on perceptual rather than logic based reasoning i.e. based on the appearance of a situation rather than reality (appearance-reality distinction).

  • Number conservation; two rows of counters side by side. Children were able to reason that there was same no. of counters each row, however when counters were pushed together, children struggled to conserve; said there were fewer counters.
  • Liquid conservation;

Egocentrism -  Children only see the world from their position and are not aware of other perspectives.

  • Three mountain task; shown 3 model mountains each with different feature, a doll placed where it faced from different angle to child. Child is asked what doll would see in which they found difficult to answer if not from their own.

Class inclusion - an advanced classification skill, ability to recognise that objects fall into categories. Pre-operational children usually struggle to place things in more than one class

  • 'Are there more dogs or animals?' task; children under 8 tended to respond that there were more dogs. Shows that younger children couldnt simltaneously  see a dog as a member of the dog class and animal class. 
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Piaget's Stages of Intellectual Development

3) Concrete Operation stage - 7-11yrs 

In this stage, children have mastered conservation which provides evidence of the childs command of logical operations.

Are improving on egocentrism and class inclusion. Although they have better reasoning abilities (operations - logical mental rules) theyre strictly on concrete operations. This refers to ability of only able to reason or operate on physical objects in the childs presence (concrete operations). They struggle to reason about abstract ideas and imagine situations they cannot see. 

4) Formal operation stage - 11+ yrs

Children become capable of formal reasoning, so theyre able to focus on the form of an argument and not be distracted on content.

Piaget believed that once children become capable of formal reasoning, theyre also capable of scientific reasoning and become able to appreciate abstract ideas.

Can solve abstract problems via hypothetico-deductive reasoning - thinking like a scientist.  Also display idealistic thinking - able to imagine how things might be if certain changes are made.

Tested via Syllogisms. E.g yellow cat having two heads; Younger children were distracted by the content and answered that cats do not have two heads.

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One -ve is that the stages was based on tests that may lack validity.

For instance, McGarrigle et al found that in a number conservation task, if the counters were moved accidently by a 'naughty teddy', 72% of children under 7 correctly said the number was same. 

This suggests Piagets method may have led the children to think something must have changed (investigator effects) so Piaget may have underestimated the conservation ability of children aged 4-6years. 

This therefore suggests that this age groups could conserve, it just depended on the way the question was suggested meaning that Piaget was wrong about the conservation in the pre operational stage.

Another -ve is that Piagets conclusions on class inclusions may be questionable

For intance, Siegler et al found that when 5 years olds received feedback that pointed out subets, they did develop an understanding of class inclusion. 

This shows that the study is contrary to Piagets belief - that children under 7 could not understand class inclusion. 

This therefore decreases validity on piagets explanations of intellectual development. 

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A further limitation brings to light about childrens ability to decentre

For instance, Hughes (1975) found that 3.5yr old child was able to position a boy doll in model house with intersecting walls so that the doll could not be seen by policemen dolls. 

This suggests that children are able to decentre and imagine other perspectives whereas Piaget proposed children of 2-7 had the inability to elicit from another perspective.

This therefore poses a problem for Piaget as it shows he may have underestimated a child egocentrism at a particular stage of development. 

A final limitation is Piaget veiws that intellectual development as a single process. 

For instance, studies of children with autism suggest that  intellectual abilities may develop independently as such children are typcically very egocentric but develop normal reasoning and language.

These findings supports a domain specific rather than a general view of development. 

This therefore suggests that the assumption of piagets theory being domain general may not be valid for all examples of development. 

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Vygotsky's theory of Cognitive Development

  • Both this and piagets theory agreed that childrens reasoning abilities develop in a particular sequence, such abilities were qualitatively different at different stages. However this theory places more emphasis on the role of other people in CD  than in Piagets and saw language as important part of cognitive development than did Piaget. 
  • Vygotsky saw CD as a social process of learning from experienced others (experts). 
  • Knowledge is first intermental (social level); between the more and less expert individual. Then intramental (individual level); within the mind of less expert individual. 
  • CD is driven by childs biological maturation but is also product of their interactions of others. 

Cultural differences

  • Culture is the prime determinant of individual development.
  • Child is born with elementary mental functions (biological and form of natural development); transformed into higher mental functions (exclusively human) by influence of culture- this is the role of culture.
  • Child will acquire reasoning abilities via contact with those around them, as a result there will be a cultural difference in cognitive development because they grow up and learn about the world that is surrounded by cultural values and beleifs.
  • CD occurs when children internalise mental tools that are important for life via social interactions with knowledgable peers. 
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Vygotsky's theory of Cognitive Development

Zone of proximal development (ZPD) -Region where CD takes place where learner is aided by cultural influences (experts). - Gap between a childs current level of development (defined by the cognitive tasks theyre able to perform unaided) and what they can potentially do with the right help from a more expert other.

ScaffoldingProcess of helping a learner cross the ZPD to advance as much as they can, level of help given in scaffolding declines as learner crosses the ZPD. Expert creates temporary support which is gradually withdrawnas child is able to work independently. 

Wood et al identified 5 aspects to scaffolding which are general ways in which adult can help a child better understand.

  • Recruitment: engaging childs interest in task
  • Reduction in degrees of freedom: focusing child on the task and where to start with solving it
  • Direction maintenance: encouraging child to make them stay motivated and to continue completing task
  • Marking critical features: highlighting importnt parts of task
  • Demonstration: showing child how to do certain aspects of task

Progressive Scaffolding Strategies - As a learner crosses the zone of ZPD, the level of scaffolding declines from level 5 to level 1(least help). Adult more likely to use highest level of help when first helping, then slowly withdraw help to child.

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One +ve is that there is supportive evidence for ZPD.

For instance, Roazzi et al found that in 4-5yrs old peformed better on a 'number of sweet' challenge when working with peers who offered support on estimating rather than alone.

This shows that children can develop more advanced reasoning skills when working with more expert people. 

This therefore supports the validity of ZPD as a developmental concept.

Another +ve is that there is supoortive evidence for the idea scaffolding.

For instance, Conner and Cross observed 45 children at intervals between the ages of 16 and 54months, finding that mothers used less direct intervention as children developed. 

This shows how the level of help given by an expert partner declines over time as suggested by the process of scaffolding. 

This supports Vygotskys claim that scaffolding is a good description of process by which children move through their ZPD. 

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A further +ve is the practical applications of Vygotskys ideas in education.

For instance, Keer et al found that 7yr olds tutored by 10yr olds, along with their whole class teaching, progressed further in reading than a control group who only had class teaching.

This suggests tthat Vygotsky was correct in assuming that more able people can enhance development and learning. 

This therefore supports the validity and usefulness of the theory. 

A -ve is that not all children respond identically to learning opportunites.

For instance, Howe et al had 9-12yrs old in groups to discuss about how an object moves down a slope, they showed better understanding after the discussion but didnt pick up the same facts.

This shows that even when children experience the same interaction they do not have the same level of nature of cognitive development.

Vygotsky's theory can therefore be criticised for not fully explaining the various rate of development amongst different children whereas Piagets concept of maturation can.

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Baillargeon's Explanation

Piaget's take on the sensorimotor stage was that 8-9months old babies have very primitave understanding of the nature of the physical world e.g. babies not aware that objects continue to exist after they leave visual field. (reasoning based on research)

Baillargeon has challenged Piaget's ideas about the sensorimotor stage, proposing that young babies have a better developed understanding of the physical world than Piaget had suggested including  object permenance which was infact due to  poor motor skillsViolation of Expectation (VOE) method was developed to investigate infant understanding of the physical world.


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Baillargeon's Explanation

Violation of Expectation (VOE) Research - The idea that if children understand how physical world operates then they will expect certain things to happen in certain situations. If these do not occur then this goes against childs expectation, this suggests that they have an intact knowledge of that aspect of the world. This technique compares infant reactions to an expected and unxpected event, so able to make inferences about infants cognitive abilities. 

Control condition - object behaves as person with object permenance would expect➞ E.g. tall object will appear in window as it passes behind a screen but short object will not because it passes below the window.

Procedure: Baillargeon (1987) showed 24 (5-6months) infants a tall and short rabbit pass behind a screen with a window. 

  • Possible condition - tall rabbit can be seen passing the window short rabbit cannot. 
  • Impossible condition - neither rabbit appeared at the window. 

Findings: Infants looked at impossible event for 33.07s (average) compared to 25.11s at possible event. This was interpreted as meaning that the infants were surprised at the impossible condition, this was presumably because they knew that the tall rabbit should have reappeared at the window. This therefore demonstrates an understanding of object permenance at less than 6 months of age infants. 


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Baillargeon's Explanation

VOE has been used to test infants understanding of the following:

  • Containment - the idea that when an object is seen to enter to enter a container, it should still be there when the container is opened.
  • Support -  the idea that an object should fall when unsupported but not when it is on a horizontal surface.
  • Occlusion - when an object obstructs another.
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Baillargeon's Explanation

Baillargeon's theory of infant physical reasoning

Humans are born with a physical reasoning system (PRS) that enables us to have a basic understanding of the physical world and the ability to learn more details easily. This primative awareness becomes more sophisticated as we learn from experience. 

Object persistence - the idea that an object remains in existence and does not spontaneously alter in structure. Its a crude understanding we have from birth.

 First few weeks of life, infant begins to identify event categories. Each event category corresponds to one way  in which objects interact and children learn about these from birth. For example, occlusion events take place when one object blocks the view of another. Due to child born with basic understanding of object permenance and to quickly learn that one object can block their view of another, by the time theyre tested in B's VOE rabbit tasks, child show capability in understanding that tall rabbit should appear at the window. 

The 'impossible' event captures infants attention because the nature of their PRS means theyre predisposed to attend to new events that might allow them to develop their understanding of the physical world.

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One +ve is that the VOE technique provides a better understanding of infants. 

For instance, Piaget assumed that when an infant failed to search for a hidden object, the infant thought it no longer existed. Alternative interpretation would be that they simply were losing interest but this doesnt explain the findings that children look for longer at impossible events.

However, the use of VOE method enables better investigating whether a child has some understanding of the permenant nature of objects as it eliminates confounding variables.

This therefore means that the VOE method has better validity to test of infant understanding than Piaget's which suggests that Baillargeons theory may be more valid.

Another strength is that the PRS IS consistent with other research into infant cognitive abilities. 

For instance, Pie et al found that infants can use crude patterns to judge distance from an early age but that more subtle texture differences require more experience.

Distance perception therefore appears to be another innate system that becomes more sophisticated with age just like the PRS.

Therefore it is likely many cognitive systems develop at least partially in tandem and the fact that other abilities develop in the same way as VOE is supportive of Baillargeons PRS theory.

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One -ve is that it is hard to judge what an infant understands. 

For instance, the VOE technique predicts how a baby might behave if a violation of expectations occur. Although they may not actually look longer at impossible events than possible events. 

Infants might look for different lengths of time at different events just because they see them as different and not necessarily because they have recognised them as impossible. 

This therefore raises questions about the validity of VOE for investigating infant understanding.

A +ve is that PRS can explain why physical understanding is universal.

For instance, Van Marle et al (2012) points out that basic physical properties are understood by almost everyone e.g. if you drop something,it will land on the floor.

The fact that this understanding is universal suggests that its innate, if it were not innate, cultural differences would be expected in which have not been found.

This is therefore well supported as Baillargeon argues that due to its universal nature, PRS is innate.

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Social Cognition: 1.Selman

Selman's level of perspective-taking

Piagets idea of egocentrism (3 mountain task) is an example of physical perspective taking i.e. physically understanding what someone else can see. Social perspective taking; this is more about understanding what someone else is thinking or feeling i.e. Social cognition - Describes mental processes we make use of when engaged in social interaction, e.g. making decisions on how to behave based on how our understanding of a social situation. Understanding and decision making are key.                                                                                                                                                                         Perspective taking - Our ability to appreciate a social situation from the perspective of other people. This cognitive ability underlies much of our normal social interactions

Piaget➞ domain-general cognitive development; that physical and social perspective taking would occur together.  Selman➞ domain- specific cognitive development; social perspective taking development is a seperate process. 

Perspective-taking Research

  • Selman looked at changes that occured with age in childrens response to scenarios, were asked to take role of different people in a social situation. 
  • Procedure: 30 boys, 30 girls. 20-age4 20-age5 20-age6. Partook in tasks designed to measure roletaking ability; involved asking them to describe and explain how each person felt in various scenarios. 
  • Findings: Identified a number of distinct levels of role taking.The level of role taking correlated with age, this suggests a clear developmental sequence.
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Social Cognition: 1.Selman

Selman's stages of development 

  • Socially egocentric - Stage 0 [3-6yrs]: child cannot reliably distinguish between their own emotions and those of others. Can generally identify emotional states in others but do not understand what social behaviour have caused them.
  • Social information role-taking - Stage 1 [6-8yrs]: child can tell the difference between their own POV and of others but usually focus on one of these perspectives.
  • Self reflective role-taking - Stage 2 [8-10yrs]: child can put themselves in the position of other poeple and appreciate their POV but only take on one POV at a time. 
  • Mutual role taking - Stage 3 [10-12yrs]: children able to look at situations from their own and anothers point of view at the same time.
  • Social and conventional system role taking - Stage 4 [12yrs+]: young people able to see that sometimes understanding others' POV is not enough to allow people to reach agreement. This is why social conventions are needed to keep order. 
  • These stages are based on both maturity and experience.

Perceptual perspective taking - (3 mountain task) individual views a situation from another's point-of-view

Conceptual perspective taking - (Sally anne task) children's ability to distinguish what they know from what they see

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Social Cognition: 1.Selman

Selman added 3 further elements to fully explain social development.

(1) Interpersonal understanding - what Selman measured in earlier research, being able to take different roles is evidence that we understand social situations.

(2) Interpersonal negotiation strategies - Developing skills in how to respond to the social situations, this can include learning to negotiate and manage conflict. 

(3) Awareness of personal meaning of relationships - In addition to comprehending and managing social skills, we also need to be able to reflect on social behaviour in the context of life history and full range of relationships. ➞ violent gang member has advanced social understanding and good social skills but choose a simple approach to conflict i.e. violence due to their role in a gang.

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One +ve is that there is strong research evidence to support perspective taking gets better with age.

For instance, Selman (1971) found +ve correlations between age and the ability to take on different perspectives in a study of 60 4-6yr olds.

This is backed up longitudinal follow-up studies which confirm that persective taking progresses with age. 

This is therefore a strength because Selmans ideas are both based on solid research and supported by a range of studies.

Another +ve is that this theory helps understand some atypical development.

For instance, Merton et al compared 8-12yrs old ADHD children with a control group who looked at the performance on perspective taking tasks - found that those with ADHD did worse on scenario understanding. 

They also did worse on identifying the feelings of each person involved and evaluating the consequences of different actions.

This therefore means that research have identified a key social cognitive deficit in this group of people which supports the usefulness of the theory in helping us to ultimatley intervene and support people with atypical development.

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One -ve is that there is mixed evidence for the importance of perspective taking.

For instance, Valkenburg et al found a negative correlation between age, perspective taking and coercive behaviour - indicating that perspective taking is significant in developing prosocial behaviour.

However, Keller et al found that bullies demonstrated no difficulties in perspective taking. 

This is therefore a problem for Selmans approach as it suggests perspective-taking may not be an important factor in the development of a socially desirable behaviour and so we cannot conclude to such based on mixed evidence.

Another -ve is that only one aspect of social development is considered.

For instance, internal factors e.g. empathy and external factors e.g. family atmosphere, are important and it is likely social development is due to a combination of these factors.

This suggests that within a childs social development, it involves much more than their developing cognitive abilities whereas Selmans theory only looks at cognitive factors.

It can therefore be argued that considering one element of perspective taking solely gives an oversimplified account of social development. 

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Social Cognition: Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind - Our personal understanding or theory of what other people are feeling or thinking ⇎'Mind-reading'.

Lack of ToM is proposed to be an explanation for autism (ASD) - which all disorders on spectrum share impairments in empathy, social communication and social imagination.

Intentional reasoning in toddlers

Meltzoff (1988) enabled children of 18m to observe adults placing beads into a jar.

  • Experimental condition: Adults appeared to struggle and dropped beads.
  • Control condition: Adults successfully placed beads in the jar. 

From both conditions toddlers successfully placed the beads in the jar, suggesting that they were imitating what the adults intended to do rather than what they actually did, demonstrating that very young children have a simple ToM.

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Social Cognition: Theory of Mind

To study ToM, false belief task is used.

Wimmer and Perner (1983) told 3-4yr olds a story where:

  • Maxi left his chocolate in blue cupboard to go play in playground
  • After Maxi's mother used some of the chocolate in her cooking and placed the chocolate in the green cupboard.

Children were asked where Maxi would look for his chocolate when he comes back from playground.

Most 3yr olds incorrectly said the green cupboard whereas 4yr olds correctly identified the blue cupboard which demonstrates ToM.

A false belief is a belief in something that is incorrect, e.g. Maxi holds a false belief that the chocolate is in blue cupboard. ToM enables a person to understand that whats in our mind is not the same as what its in someone elses mind - either you or other person has false belief. 

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Social Cognition: Theory of Mind

Sally Anne Study

Baron-Cohen (1985): Children were told a story. 

Understanding that Sally does not know that Anne has moved the ball requires an understanding of Sallys false belief about where it is.

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Social Cognition: Theory of Mind

Baron-Cohen (1985) also looked at the link between ToM deficits and ASD using false belief tasks.

Procedure: Used Sally Anne task to test on 20 high functioning ASD children and on control group of 14 children with down syndrome  and 27 without diagnosis.

Findings: 85% of children in control group correctly identified where Sally would look for her ball, 20% of the ASD group did. This dramatic difference demonsrates that ASD involves a ToM deficit.

Testing older children and adults

Aspergers syndrome (AS) is a type of ASD where adults and older children with AS succeeded on false belief tasks. This is a blow to the idea that ASD can be explained by ToM deficits. 

Thus Baron-Cohen et al developed the Eyes task as a more challenging test of ToM. ➞ Found that adults with AS and high functioning ASD struggled with such task. This supports the idea that ToM deficits might be the cause of ASD. 

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One -ve is its low validity of false belief tasks

For instance, Bloom et al suggest that false belief tasks require other cognitive abilities such as memory as well as  ToM. Studies that provide visual aids to help with memory of false belief stories have found that younger children may succeed.

Furthermore a child can have a well developed ToM and still struggle with false belief tasks, a child can also not perform well of false belief tasks and still enjoy to pretend play which requires a ToM. 

These two arguments therefore suggest that false belief tasks do not measure ToM which decreases validity of ToM research. 

A -ve is that its difficult to distinguish ToM from perspective-taking.

For instance, Rehfeldt et al suggest that perspective taking tasks are also able to distinguish between ASD children and others.

It is also suggested that many of the methods used to study ToM could actually be a measure of perspective taking e.g. Sally Anne task.

The possibility that much of the research into ToM may simply be measuring perspective-taking further challenges the validity of ToM research.

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Another -ve is that there is low validity proposed for the Eyes task.

For instance, looking at a static pair of eyes is different from real-life experiences of seeing a face as part of a dynamic interaction.

And so conclusions about ToM that result from the use of the task lack validity.

This therefore suggests that the Eyes Task is not a valid and realistic measure of ToM and questions the conclusions for ASD.

One +ve is how ToM research contributes to our understanding of ASD.

For instance, ToM research has been useful in helping us understand the differing experiences of people with ASD and are neurotypical. Baren-Cohen even goes to suggest that ASD is a direct result of ToM.

However, Flusberg (2007) states that recent research do not support the idea that ToM deficit are specific to ASD.

This therefore suggests that ASD and ToM may not be as closely linked as was thought to be thus ToM is only a partial explanation for ASD.

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Social Cognition: MNS

The Mirror Nueron System - Consists of special brain cells called mirror neurons distributed in several areas of the brain. Theyre unique because they fire both in response to personal action and in response to action on the part of others. They may be involved in social cognition, allowing us to interpret intention and emotion in others. 

Rizzolatti et al (2002) noted that the same area of the monkeys motor cortex i.e. the part of brain controlling movement, became activated when:

  • Monkeys observed a researcher reaching out for his lunch
  • The monkeys themselves reached for food

Researchers confirmed that it was the same brain cells that fired when the monkey reached itself or watched someone else reach. Called them mirror neurons because they mirror motor activity in another individual. 


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Social Cognition: MNS

Mirror Neurons and Intention                                                                                                Gallese and Goldman (1998) suggested that mirror neurons  respond to obseved actions and also to intention behind behaviour. Intentions of others need to be understood in order to interact socially. Rather than a common sense view to interpret peoples actions with memory, Gallese and Goldman suggested that we stimulate others actions in our motor system and experience their intentions using our mirror neurons. They help us experience the intentions of others.

Mirror neurons and Perspective taking

Its also suggested that mirror neurons are important in other social cognitive functions such as ToM and perspective taking. When mirror neurons fire in response to others actions and intentions this may give us a neural mechanism for experiencing , hence understanding other peoples perspectives and emotional states.

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Social Cognition: MNS

Mirror neurons and human evolution

Ramachandran (2011) suggested that mirror neurons have effectively shaped human evolution. The complex social interactions we have as humans require a brain system that facilitates an understanding of intention, emotion and perspective. Without such cognitive abilities, we would not be able to live in large groups with the complex social roles and rules than characterise human culture. Mirror neurons are key to understanding the way humans have developed as a social species. 

Mirror nuerons and ASD 

Evidence concerning mirror neurons and perspective taking comes from studies with miror neurons and ASD children. ASD is associated with problems with social-cognitive abilities.

Ramachandran and Oberman (2006) have proposed the 'broken mirror' theory of ASD; this is the idea that neurological deficits (including dysfunction in the mirror neuron system) prevent a developing child imitating and understanding social behaviour in others. This shows in infancy when children later diagnosed with ASD typically mimic adult behaviour less than others.

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One +ve is that there is research support for the role of mirror neurons.

For instance, Haker et al demonstrated via fMRI scans that within the right frontal lobe there was high levels of mirror neurons that is involved in contagious yawning which is considered an example of human empathy.

Likewise, Mouras et al found that when men watched heterosexual ***********, high levels of mirror neurons activity was seen in the pars opercularis (frontal lobe) immediately before sexual arousal. This suggests that mirror neurons produced perspective-taking making the *********** arousing. 

This therefore shows that both studies support the importance of mirror neurons in social cognition because they show that regions of the brain which are believed to be rich in mirror neurons, activate when empathy or perspective -taking takes place. 

A -ve is the difficulties invlolved in studying the mirror neuron system in humans.

For instance, inserting electrodes is the only way of measuring activity at a cellular but it is not ethically possible to do so in humans.

Evidence for mirror neuron activity usually comes from brain scanning in which this technique identifies activity levels in regions of the brain but cannot measure activity in individual brain cells.

Therefore mirror neuron research is therefore based on inferences from measuring general activity in areas of the brain and this cannot provide direct evidence of mirror neuron activity.

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Another -ve is its mixed evidence for abnormal mirror neuron function in ASD.

For instance, Hadjikhani (2007) supports the link between ASD and mirror neuron deficits as he found a smaller thickness of pars opercularis in ASD ppts. 

However, other studies using fMRI show lower activity in brain areas associated with mirror neurons in paricipants with ASD but not all of such findings have been replicated.

Therefore, the reliability of the results remain dubious as the evidence linking ASD to mirror neurons is mixed.

A further -ve is the inability to isolate specialist cells.

For instance, Hickok (2009) argues that we only know mirror neurons by their function and have so far failed to be able to identify individual cells and point to their differences from other neurons.

So Hickok pulls into questions whether mirror neurons actually exist whereas other researcher do believe there are isolate mirror neurons. 

This therefore challenges the existence of specialist neurons carrying out the mirroring but it doesnt deny that the function described is carried out in the brain. 

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