Preschoolers’ Implicit and Explicit False-Belief Understanding: Relations With Complex Syntactical Mastery


  • This research was funded internally at Victoria University of Wellington by a School of Psychology Research Grant (SoP22817). The author is grateful to Janet Astington, Helena Gao, Sophie Jacques, Josef Perner, Ted Ruffman, and Karen Salmon for advice, and three anonymous reviewers for insightful and constructive comments on the original article. The author also thanks the children who generously participated in the research, and Steve Cochran and the many research assistants for their valuable help in collecting the data.

concerning this article should be addressed to Jason Low, School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, P.O. Box 600, Wellington 6140, New Zealand. Electronic mail may be sent to


Three studies were carried out to investigate sentential complements being the critical device that allows for false-belief understanding in 3- and 4-year-olds (= 102). Participants across studies accurately gazed in anticipation of a character’s mistaken belief in a predictive looking task despite erring on verbal responses for direct false-belief questions. Gaze was independent of complement mastery. These patterns held when other low-verbal false-belief tasks were considered and the predictive looking task was presented as a time-controlled film. While implicit (gaze) knowledge predicted explicit (verbal) false-belief understanding, complement mastery and cognitive flexibility also supported explicit reasoning. Overall, explicit false-belief understanding is complexly underpinned by implicit knowledge and input from higher-order systems of language and executive control.