Investigating Factive and Non-factive Mentalization States in Children


  • Karina Chernova University of Vienna


While already much is known about Theory of Mind in kindergarten-aged children, a recent proposal suggests that researchers should study a wide range of mental state attributions in order to pinpoint the underlying representational demands of mentalization [1]. This ongoing research project is targeting how German-speaking children aged 4-5 years evaluate mental state attributions, which occur in real life when the evaluation of verbal reports is needed.

Verbal reports can serve to create nuanced distinctions in mental state attribution. For instance, utterances such as “I know that I have two strawberries.”/"Ich weiß, dass ich zwei Erdbeeren habe." vs. “I think that I have three strawberries.”/"Ich glaube, dass ich zwei Erdbeeren habe.". The first naturally allows for factive mentalization (knowledge or ignorance attribution), while the second is compatible with non-factive mentalization (false belief or true belief attribution) [1]. The current study uses verbal reports to explore this factive vs. non-factive distinction, asking whether there is a cost associated with switching between them.

The data collection is conducted in a museum, where children can choose to approach the researchers and take part in the experiment, with parents' consent collected prior. In a tablet-based study, 4-5-year-old German speakers are first introduced to the set up of the study by a researcher, then watch videos of two animals collecting strawberries. In the first experiment, each animal gives information about the number of strawberries they have using either factive (know, see/wissen, sehen) or non-factive verbs (think, believe/denken, glauben). The children's task is to determine which animal has more berries (target animal) while their reaction time (RT) is measured. In non-switch trials, both utterances use one class of verbs (both factive or both non-factive). In switch trials, the utterances use different classes of verbs (one factive and the other non-factive). If factivity is organized into two systems, we expect non-switch trials to result in a faster RT than switch trials. The first experiment phase has already been concluded, showing mixed results.

The evidence is expected to support a new way of understanding theory of mind, focused on comprehending other’s minds in relation to the present world, rather than detached from it [1].


[1] J. Phillips, W. Buckwalter, F. Cushman, O. Friedman, A. Martin, J. Turri, L. Santos, J. Knobe. (2021) Knowledge before belief. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 44, e140: 1–75. doi: