New paper: "Retrospective attribution of false beliefs in 3-year-old children"

October 17, 2018

The study found that 3-year-old children can retrospectively infer the content of someone’s beliefs by combining present information with relevant events retrieved from episodic memory. This finding shows that emerging capacities for episodic memory contribute to the development of social cognitive processes, enriching children’s ability to monitor others’ mental states.

The study was a collaboration between the Babylab at ELTE and CDC researchers. The resulting paper is freely available at PNAS.


A current debate in psychology and cognitive science concerns the nature of young children’s ability to attribute and track others’ beliefs. Beliefs can be attributed in at least two different ways: prospectively, during the observation of belief-inducing situations, and in a retrospective manner, based on episodic retrieval of the details of the events that brought about the beliefs. We developed a task in which only retrospective attribution, but not prospective belief tracking, would allow children to correctly infer that someone had a false belief. Eighteen- and 36-month-old children observed a displacement event, which was witnessed by a person wearing sunglasses (Experiment 1). Having later discovered that the sunglasses were opaque, 36-month-olds correctly inferred that the person must have formed a false belief about the location of the objects and used this inference in resolving her referential expressions. They successfully performed retrospective revision in the opposite direction as well, correcting a mistakenly attributed false belief when this was necessary (Experiment 3). Thus, children can compute beliefs retrospectively, based on episodic memories, well before they pass explicit false-belief tasks. Eighteen-month-olds failed in such a task, suggesting that they cannot retrospectively attribute beliefs or revise their initial belief attributions. However, an additional experiment provided evidence for prospective tracking of false beliefs in 18-month-olds (Experiment 2). Beyond identifying two different modes for tracking and updating others’ mental states early in development, these results also provide clear evidence of episodic memory retrieval in young children.


Király, I., Oláh, K., Csibra, G., & Kovács, Á.M. (in press). Retrospective attribution of false beliefs in 3-year-old children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

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