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Mother and Infant Talk About Mental States Relates to Desire Language and Emotion Understanding


  • The research was conducted during tenure of a Health Research Council of New Zealand, Pacific Health Research Postgraduate Award to Mele Taumoepeau.

  • The MacBrain face stimulus set used in this study was obtained from the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Early Experience and Brain Development. Development of the MacBrain Face Stimulus Set was overseen by Nim Tottenham and supported by the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Early Experience and Brain Development. Please contact Nim Tottenham at for more information concerning the stimulus set.

  • We owe special thanks to the children and parents who participated in the study, to Kirstie Morgan and Anna Janssen for help with the transcribing and coding, and to two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.

concerning this article should be addressed to Mele Taumoepeau, Department of Psychology, University of Otago, Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand. Electronic mail may be sent to


This study assessed the relation between mother mental state language and child desire language and emotion understanding in 15–24-month-olds. At both time points, mothers described pictures to their infants and mother talk was coded for mental and nonmental state language. Children were administered 2 emotion understanding tasks and their mental and nonmental state vocabulary levels were obtained via parental report. The results demonstrated that mother use of desire language with 15-month-old children uniquely predicted a child's later mental state language and emotion task performance, even after accounting for potentially confounding variables. In addition, mothers' tendency to refer to the child's over others' desires was the more consistent correlate of mental state language and emotion understanding.