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Graphic Symbols as “The Mind on Paper”: Links Between Children’s Interpretive Theory of Mind and Symbol Understanding


  • The data reported here were collected in partial fulfillment of a doctoral thesis conducted by the first author under the supervision of the second author. We are grateful to the parents and children who volunteered their time to participate and to the Penn State Families Interested in Research Studies group for access to their participant database. We thank Adam Christensen, Mike Kilcoyne, Jen Lyons, Lauren Biga, Kelly Hayduk, Megan Bibey, Kimberly Yingling, Katie Freet, and Lauren Sasaki for their valuable assistance in various phases of this work, and Rick Gilmore, Richard Carlson, Carol Miller, and Michael Chandler for their many insightful suggestions. This work was funded in part by Penn State Psychology Department grants awarded to Lauren Myers from the Bruce V. Moore Fund and the Child Study Center’s Faris Endowment. No endorsement of this research by any funding agency or source is implied. Portions of this research were presented at the 2009 biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Denver, CO.

concerning this article should be addressed to Lauren J. Myers, Department of Psychology, Lafayette College, Oechsle Hall, 350 Hamilton Street, Easton, PA 18042 or to Lynn S. Liben, Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802. Electronic mail may be sent to or to


Children gradually develop interpretive theory of mind (iToM)—the understanding that different people may interpret identical events or stimuli differently. The present study tested whether more advanced iToM underlies children’s recognition that map symbols’ meanings must be communicated to others when symbols are iconic (resemble their referents). Children (6–9 years; N = 80) made maps using either iconic or abstract symbols. After accounting for age, intelligence, vocabulary, and memory, iToM predicted children’s success in communicating symbols’ meaning to a naïve map-user when mapping tasks involved iconic (but not abstract) symbols. Findings suggest children’s growing appreciation of alternative representations and of the intentional assignment of meaning, and support the contention that ToM progresses beyond mastery of false belief.