ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

›› 2009, Vol. 41 ›› Issue (08): 706-714.

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Longitudinal Perspectives: The Sequences of Theory-of-Mind Development in Chinese Preschoolers

FANG Fu-Xi;Henry M. Wellman;LIU Yu-Juan;LIU Guo-Xiong;KANG Rong


  1. (1Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China)
    (2 Center for Human Growth and Development, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-0406, USA)
    (3Institute of Central Educational Sciences, Beijing,100088, China)
    (4School of Educational Sciences, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing, China)
    (5Institute of Light Industry of Shandong, Jinan, 250353, China)
  • Received:2007-12-19 Revised:1900-01-01 Published:2009-08-30 Online:2009-08-30
  • Contact: FANG Fu-Xi

Abstract: Theory-of-mind (ToM) refers to people’s consistent interpretation of each other’s actions in terms of un-derlying mental states (beliefs, desires and emotions). Children come to do this in the preschool years (Harris, 2006; Wellman, 2002). In earlier research a ToM Scale was established to examine sequences of ToM under-standing in children raised in U.S (Wellman & Liu, 2004) and China (Wellman, et al., 2006). The scale encom-passes tasks assessing preschooler’s understanding of (1) diverse desires (DD), (2) diverse beliefs (DB), (3) knowledge-access (KA), (4) false belief (FB), and (5) hidden emotion (HE). The five tasks were comparable in procedure, language and format as well as comparable across the English and Chinese versions. These two groups cross-sectionally evidenced two consistent, similar but crucially differing sequences of understanding: The item-order (from easy to hardest) for US children is that listed above, but for Chinese children the sequence was DD> KA > DB > FB > HE. That is, the order of DB and KA was reversed across these groups. Such find-ings are valuable for establishing developmental sequences in children raised in different cultures, and seem-ingly provide a cross-sectional shortcut to tracking longitudinal sequences. However, it remains an open ques-tion whether the sequences established cross-sectionally via the scale accurately depicted the longitudinal pro-gressions that individual children undergo. We addressed that question by examining whether cross-sectional progressions and longitudinal progressions converged in Chinese preschoolers.
31 Chinese preschoolers from Beijing who had received the scale as 3-year-olds were retested again as 4-year-olds and 25 of them were retested a third time as 5-year-olds. Each child received the 5-item scale at each testing. As is standard for this scale tasks all used toy figurine and picture props to show objects and situations. All tasks included a focal test question and a control question. Children were required to pass both questions in order to count as passing a task.
The data showed that the same 5-step sequence established in cross-sectional scaling analyses also charac-terized the longitudinal progression in Chinese children. These progressions were confirmed with Guttman and Rasch scale analyses. More specifically the scores of great majority of children increased longitudinally and decreases were rare. Thus a repeated measure ANOVA yielded a significant main effect for testing times (ages). Closer examination of children’s individual longitudinal progressions confirmed that children’s scores not only increased, they generally increased in sequence along the scale.
In conclusion, the ToM Scale (in Chinese version) validly provides a useful method for approximating lon-gitudinal progressions via a cross-sectional approach. It also confirms consistent sequential conceptual under-standing in Chinese individual children which is largely were similar to but also crucially different from that of children from Anglo-European cultures. We discuss these sequential differences of ToM development between Chinese and US children in terms of the social interactive experiences and culturally shaped information that critically influence theory-of-mind understanding, coupled with an analysis of the contrasting language and fa-milial systems that characterized children’s early childhood experiences.

Key words: theory-of-mind scale, longitudinal study, developmental sequence, preschooler