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  Do actions speak louder than knowledge? Actionmanipulation, parental discourse, and children’smental state understanding in pretense Dawn K. Melzer a, ⇑ , Laura J. Claxton b a Department of Psychology, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT 06825, USA b Department of Health and Kinesiology, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47906, USA a r t i c l e i n f o  Article history: Received 30 June 2013Revised 18 June 2014Available online 20 July 2014 Keywords: Mental state understandingPretend playParent–child communicationMental state languagePreschoolersExecutive function a b s t r a c t Studies on pretense mental state understanding in young childrenhave produced inconsistent findings. These findings couldpotentially emerge from the confounding influences of actionmanipulation or the failure to examine possible influences on indi-vidualchildren’sperformances.Toaddresstheseissues,wecreateda task in which 68 3- and 4-year-olds viewed two actors, side byside, on a monitor. Children were told that one actor was knowl-edgeable about a specific animal, whereas the other actor wasnot. The actors performed identical movements that were either related  or  unrelated  to the animal they were mimicking or engagedin different behaviors  contradictory  to their knowledge. Saliency of action was also manipulated by presenting either dynamic imagesor a paused frame of the actors’ behavior (i.e., the static condition).Childrenperformedsimilarlyonthedynamicandstaticconditions.Children selected the knowledgeable actor more often in the  unre-lated  and  related  trials but were not as successful at selecting theknowledgeable actor when the actor’s knowledge contradictedthe actor’s behavior. Therefore, by 3years of age, some childrenmayunderstandthatpretendplayinvolvesmental representationsand appreciate that the mind influences a pretender’s behavior. Toinvestigate the observed individual differences, we also examinedchildren and parents as they engaged in reading and pretenseactivities prior to data collection. The frequency of parents’ cogni-tivementalstateutterancesstronglypredictedperformanceonthemental state task. Individual differences in performance as a result http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2014.06.0060022-0965/   2014 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. ⇑ Corresponding author. Fax: +1 203 371 7998. E-mail address:  melzerd365@sacredheart.edu (D.K. Melzer). Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 128 (2014) 21–36 Contents lists available at ScienceDirect  Journal of Experimental ChildPsychology journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/jecp  of parental language and executive functioning abilities arediscussed.   2014 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Introduction Children accept the most extraordinary scenarios in their play. They pretend to be princesses anddragons living in elaborate moat-protected castles, and they find joy in tasks that adults go aboutbegrudgingly (e.g., making dinner). There has been considerable research examining the cognitivemechanisms underlying pretense (Nichols & Stich, 2000; Schroeder & Matheson, 2006). Theoriesregardingthesemechanisms differ onthe subject of children’s awareness of mental states duringpre-tend play (e.g., manipulation and monitoring of the mind’s content), especially before 5years of age.The two main views of young children’s understanding of mental states during pretend activitiesare termed the  action hypothesis  and the  mental state hypothesis  (see Ganea, Lillard, & Turkheimer,2004, for a review). The action hypothesis posits that children associate pretend play with actionsbefore realizing the mind’s involvement (Lillard, 1993; Perner, 1991). According to this hypothesis,youngchildrendonotappreciatetheknowledgeofapretenderasbeingimportanttothepretendplayand instead focus on the action of the pretender (Lillard, 1993).ThekeystudysupportingtheactionhypothesisisLillard’s(1993)‘‘Moe’’study.Inthisstudy,4-and5-year-olds were presented with dolls that acted out behaviors. For example, if ‘‘Moe’’ had never seena rabbit and had no knowledge regarding rabbits but was hopping like a rabbit, children were askedwhetherornotMoewaspretendingtobearabbit.Most4-year-oldsrespondedthatMoewaspretend-ing to be a rabbit. Thus, they ignored the lack of information Moe possessed mentally in favor of concentrating on his actions.In contrast to the action hypothesis, the mental state hypothesis of pretense posits that the under-standing of mental state is a necessary component of pretense understanding (Leslie, 1987) and thatyoung children appreciate the role of the pretender as being important to pretend play (Gottfried,Kickling, Totten, Mkroyan, & Reisz, 2003; Harris & Kavanaugh, 1993; Rakoczy, Tomasello, & Striano,2004). This is illustrated by Bruell and Woolley (1998), who had 3- and 4-year-olds view images depicting two characters interacting with an object (e.g., a cardboard box). The characters performedthe same actions with the box (e.g., touched the box as if pressing buttons), but a ‘‘thought bubble’’appeared above each of their heads to indicate what each character was pretending the object tobe. For example, one actor had a thought bubble containing a horse, and the other had a thought bub-blecontaining a car. Insubsequent questioning, children were asked what the actors were pretendingtheobjectshouldbeandwhattheactorswereactuallydoingwiththeobject.Childrenperformedwellwhengiventhe thoughtbubbles. Whentheactor’s thoughtsweremade salient inthethought bubble,even young children displayed an understanding of the mental representations in pretend play. Theirfindingssupport the mental state hypothesis that young childrendo possess the abilityto understandthat the mind is important when interacting with others during pretend play.Perhapsthediscrepanciesbetweentheaction-basedandmental state-basedhypothesesareduetoindividual differences and environmental influences. Limited research has addressed the role of indi-vidual differences in children’s understanding of mental states in their pretend play (Hughes & Dunn,1997; Hughes, Ensor, & Marks, 2011; Lillard & Witherington, 2004; Sabbagh & Callanan, 1998). Onepossible factor contributing to individual differences on mental state tasks is the type of languagecaregivers and children use when engaged in pretend play.The ability to appreciate that the mind of a pretender is important during pretense activities hasbeen linked with increased use of mental state language by parents (Dunn, Brown, Slomkowski,Tesla, & Youngblade, 1991; Taumoepeau & Ruffman, 2008). Parental use of mental state terms hasbeen associated with the amount of time children are engaged in pretend play activities and thecomplexity of that pretend play (Nielsen & Dissanayake, 2000; Youngblade & Dunn, 1995). Jenkins, 22  D.K. Melzer, L.J. Claxton/Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 128 (2014) 21–36   Turrell, and Kogushi (2003) found that increased use of cognitive mental state speech by parents thatreferencesthemindbyusingtermssuchas‘‘think’’and‘‘remember’’duringplayandreadingtimewasrelatedto increaseduseof thistype of speechby childrenand tomental stateunderstanding. The roleof parental language in children’s understanding of mental states during pretend play has not beenexplored.The goal of the current study was to explore which hypothesis—action or mental state—moreaccurately explains how 3- and 4-year-olds understand pretend play episodes by using both newand modified methodologies. It also aimed to investigate the possibility that individual differencesin the type of language parents and children use during their interactions may account for the mixedresults found in prior studies. Children completed a mental state task and were video-recorded withtheirparentsduringareadingandpretendplayactivitytolookatthelanguageusedduringthatactiv-ity. The mental state task used a methodology similar to that used by Ganea and colleagues (2004). Intheirstudy,3-and4-year-oldswerepresentedwithtwoactorssidebysideonascreen. Childrenweretold the intention of one of the actors (‘‘I am going to fly like a bird now’’) even though the actor wasacting contradictory to that intention (e.g., he was jumping up and down). The second actor on thescreen behaved appropriately for the animal used in the example (e.g., the actor behaved like a bird)but was not intending to be a bird. Both 3- and 4-year-olds selected the appropriately behaved actormore than the actor that intendedto behave like a bird when asked whichactor was pretending to bea bird. Children relied more on action when a comparison was presented between the appropriatelyand inappropriately behaved pretenders and ignored the intentions of the character.The current study also presented children with a mental state task with two actors side by side onthe screen, but in contrast to Ganea and colleagues’ (2004) study, children in the current study wereprovided with information regarding the actor’s knowledge instead of the actor’s intention whenasked to decide which actor was pretending. This was due to the inconsistent findings of children’sunderstanding of intentions before 5years of age (Harris & Kavanaugh, 1993; Mitchell & Neal,2005;Rakoczyetal.,2004)andthefactthatchildrenhavedemonstratedanappreciationofknowledgeas an important factor in pretend play activities by 3years of age (Gottfried et al., 2003). In addition,previousresearchhasemployedknowledgeandthoughtastheinformationpresentedtoyoungerchil-dren in mental state tasks (Lillard, 1993; Sobel, 2004).Most studies have not controlled for the potential confounding influences of action dynamism(Ganea et al., 2004; Lillard, 1993). Intraditional trials, children could focus on either action or knowl-edge when deciding whether an actor was pretending. In the current study, during the mental statetask, three presentation formats that manipulated the action and knowledge of an actor were pre-sented to each child. In contrast to previous studies, one of these presentation formats eliminatedthe possibility that children could rely on action and instead forced children to select based on theactor’s knowledge (as articulated by the experimenter). In addition, if children view pretend play asaction based (as according to the action hypothesis), increasing the saliency of an actor’s behaviorwould make it more difficult for children to appreciate the actor’s mental state because the actionwouldbeharder to ignore. Toinvestigatethis possibility, childreninthe currentstudysawtwoactorsmoving simultaneously on a television screen in a dynamic condition or saw only a paused framedepicting actors as if engaged in a particular behavior (i.e., the static condition).Finally, studies have found evidence to support both the action-based and mental state-basedhypotheses with only slight variations in methodology (Bruell & Woolley, 1998; Lillard, 1993;Sobel, 2004). Perhaps these differences are due to unexplored individual differences in children’senvironments. Research has identified that mental state utterances by parents are related to mentalstate understanding in their children; therefore, this factor was investigated in anticipation that itwould aid in explaining the variation in previous findings ( Jenkins et al., 2003). To accomplish thisgoal, parents and children engaged in reading and pretend play activities before the childrencompleted a mental state task, and their mental state utterances were recorded.It was hypothesized that children would be less successful at selecting the knowledgeable actor asthe one pretending if the actor’s behaviors did not appear to match the actor’s knowledge during thedynamic condition compared with the static condition because the children would have difficulty inoverridingthe informationfromsalient actions. Insupport of the mental state hypothesis, the currenthypothesespredictedanunderstandingofmentalstatesinpretenseactivitiesearlierthanthatposited D.K. Melzer, L.J. Claxton/Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 128 (2014) 21–36   23  by the action hypothesis. It was also predicted that parents whoplace more emphasis on using wordsthat highlight mental states, specifically cognitive terms, would have children who were moresuccessful at selecting a knowledgeable actor compared with an unknowledgeable actor during themental state task ( Jenkins et al., 2003). Method Participants The participants were 73 3- and 4-year-old children from the Amherst and Springfield communi-ties of Massachusetts in the northeastern United States. Children’s names and contact informationwere obtained from town hall birth records, birth announcements, and parental responses to flyersdistributed to local preschools. Of the original sample, five participants were excluded due to aninability to complete the protocol. Therefore, 68 participants (33 girls and 35 boys) were includedinthefinalanalyses:393-year-olds( M  age  =40months,range=37–42)and294-year-olds( M  age  =51-months, range=48–56). Children were predominantly of Caucasian ethnicity and from middle- toupper middle-class backgrounds. Procedures were approved by the university institutional reviewboard. Materials A digital video camera was used to record the entire session for later offline coding. To encourageparent–childinteractions, anumberofobjectsdesignedtopromotepretendplaywereavailableinthetesting room during the pretend play activity. A bucket containing kitchenware, stuffed animals,plastic figures, and dress-up clothing and hats (e.g., ballerina outfit, fireman hat, construction hat)was available to participants. Two books were used during the reading activity.  Rainy Day  by AnnaMilbourne was selected because it included vibrantly colored pictures, had few written words, anddiscussed topics interesting to children.  I Just Forgot   by Mercer Mayer was selected for its referencesto the mind and for the popularity of the little critter character with preschool-age children.For the mental state task, 12 different animal-appropriate actions produced by actors (7 femalesand5males)werevideotaped(Table1).Theanimal-appropriateactionsweredeterminedduringpilottesting.Videosoftheactorsengagedinactionswereshownto15preschool-agechildren.Thechildrenwere asked what animal they believed the person was imitating. The animals selected were the onesthe children correctly identified the actors as portraying 85% to 95% of the time during pilot testing.Theanimals were further separatedintotwogroups. The sixanimals for whichchildrenhad thehigh-est percentage of correct responses (bunny, dog, elephant, chicken, monkey, and frog) were placed inGroup A, and the six animals with the lower percentage of correct responses (snake, fish, crocodile,  Table 1 Animal identities and actor’s associated behaviors used during mental state task. Animal identity Actor’s behaviorBunny Hopping, standing upright, hands curled in front of bodyDog Crawling on hands and kneesElephant Waving one arm up and down in front of face (like trunk movement)Chicken Arms on hips, elbows flapping in synchronous motionMonkey Arms outstretched and uneven on sides, moving up and down in a synchronous motionFrog Hopping up and down in crouching positionFish Swimming arms at shoulder height in synchronous motionBird Arms outstretched, waving up and down in synchronous motionSpider Wiggling fingers up and down next to faceCrocodile Opening and closing both arms in front of face (a biting action)Snake Slithering on stomach on floorPenguin Waddling back and forth while standing upright24  D.K. Melzer, L.J. Claxton/Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 128 (2014) 21–36 
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