Project Outline

In communication theory, the prevailing view is that to understand a speaker’s intentions in (verbal or nonverbal) communication, one needs to put oneself in the speaker’s shoes. That is, to recognize a communicator’s meaning, Theory-of-Mind-abilities (ToM) are required (e.g., Breheny, 2006; Happé, 1993; Levinson, 2006; Sperber & Wilson, 1995). This should be most evident when the speaker is making an indirect speech act, that is, when she is not explicitly saying what is on her mind but rather only hints at it (e.g. when stating, “I’m cold.” in order to ask someone to close the window).
However, only Song, Onishi, Baillargeon and Fisher (2008) investigated whether communication might change infants’ expectations about the actions of an agent who held a false belief. 18-month-old participants saw how an agent put a ball in a box, left, and an assistant moved the ball into a cup. When the agent came back, the assistant told her that “The ball is in the cup” (informative condition) or “I like the cup” (uninformative condition). The study found that only informative – direct – communication resulted in an updating of the children’s expectations about the agent’s search. Yet, Schulze & Tomasello (2015) found that infants understand even indirect communicative acts and it seems unclear why the children in Song et al.’s study did not understand the ‘uninformative’ statement as an indirect hint that is relevant for the agent’s search. To address these contrasting findings, our project tests 18-month-old children in six conditions: two conditions trying to replicate the original study by Song and colleagues, two that slightly change the original procedure and two new control conditions. 


Our research question is whether 18-month-olds understand indirect statements as communicative acts that update an agent’s false belief. We control for processing demands and communicative competence to rule-out low-level explanations (e.g., association heuristic).