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The origin of the bilingual advantage in false-belief reasoning

Paula Rubio-Fernández


Theory of Mind; false-belief tasks; true-belief inhibition; attentional processes; eye-tracking

In the Sally-Anne task – a standard measure of Theory of Mind development, Sally puts a marble in a box before going out to play. During her absence, Anne moves the marble to a basket, setting the scene for the false-belief question: ‘When Sally comes back, where will she look for her marble?’ [1]. Children under 4 err by predicting that Sally will look for her marble in the basket, rather than in the box where she left it. This paper investigates the origin of the bilingual advantage that has been found in false-belief reasoning relative to monolinguals, both in children [2, 3] and in adults [4].

Recent Theory of Mind studies with monolingual children show that 3-year olds’ focus of attention in standard false-belief tasks is critical for their performance. That is, when 3-year olds are allowed to focus on the protagonist throughout the narrative and the false-belief question doesn’t draw their attention to the target object (hence increasing the salience of the wrong response) they are able to pass standard false-belief tasks [5, 6]. In view of these recent results and contrary to the traditional view that young children fail standard false-belief tasks because they are unable to inhibit their own knowledge of the location of the object [see, e.g., 7], I have argued that this bias is task induced and that passing false-belief tasks only requires inhibiting one’s own knowledge if the task disrupts the participant’s focus of attention on the protagonist and draws their attention to the object [6, 8].

Following the traditional view, it had previously been assumed that the bilingual advantage in false-belief reasoning was due to the bilinguals’ increased Executive Control [see, e.g., 4]; that is, bilingual children and adults were better at inhibiting their own knowledge of the location of the object when responding to a false-belief question. However, under the competing assumption that false-belief reasoning doesn’t necessarily involve inhibition of one’s own knowledge, it remains to be explained what’s the origin of the bilingual advantage in false-belief reasoning. In this paper I will propose that this advantage is related to the bilinguals’ better use of attentional resources, in line with a recent proposal by Ellen Bialystok on the origin of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism [9, 10]. I will illustrate this view with the results of two eye-tracking studies on false-belief reasoning in adults, one with bilinguals and monolinguals [4] and another one with monolinguals [11].


[1] Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. Does the autistic child have a ‘‘theory of mind’’? Cognition, 21(1): 37–46, 1985.

[2] Goetz, P. J. The effects of bilingualism on theory of mind development. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 6(1), 1-15, 2003.

[3] Kovács, Á. M. Early bilingualism enhances mechanisms of false‐belief reasoning. Developmental Science, 12(1), 48-54, 2009.

[4] Rubio-Fernández, P., & Glucksberg, S. Reasoning about other people’s beliefs: Bilinguals have an advantage. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 38(1), 211-217, 2012.

[5] Rubio-Fernández, P., & Geurts, B. How to pass the false-belief task before your fourth birthday. Psychological Science, 24(1), 27-33, 2013.

[6] Rubio-Fernández, P. (under review a). The role of the test question in 3-year olds’ failure in false-belief tasks.

[7] Carlson, S. M., & Moses, L. J. Individual differences in inhibitory control and children’s theory of mind. Child development, 72(4), 1032-1053, 2001.

[8] Rubio-Fernández, P. (under review b). Can we forget what we know in a false-belief task? An investigation of the true-belief default.

[9] Bialystok, E. Global–local and trail-making tasks by monolingual and bilingual children: Beyond inhibition. Developmental Psychology, 46(1), 93-105, 2010.

[10] Bialystok, E. Bilingualism and the development of Executive Function: The role of attention. Child Development Perspectives. 2015.

[11] Rubio-Fernández, P. Perspective tracking in progress: Do not disturb. Cognition, 129(2), 264-272, 2013.