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Baron-Cohen's Study(Got An "A")

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4. Psychological research is often carried out on a restricted sample of participants. For example, some studies use children, others use students etc. With reference to Tajfel, Baron-Cohen or Loftus, answer the following questions.

a. Outline the main findings of your chosen study. (6 marks)

The study under review in the following paragraphs is Baron-Cohen's: "Does an autistic child have a theory of mind"? study which was conducted in 1985 with the aim of demonstrating that the core deficit underlying autism is the autistic child's inability to employ a 'theory of mind'. Researchers hold the belief that individuals with autism are "mind-blind" and thus, incapable of engaging in human interactions. It is argued that a child develops a 'theory of mind' between ages 4 and 6, although some evidence has demonstrated that children as young as 2 years have a 'theory of mind'. Possessing a 'theory of mind' is the ability to understand that other persons possess independent minds of their own. The development of a theory of mind enables a child to begin to interpret other persons and to predict what other people are likely to do and believe. It is the ability to think about other people's or one's own thoughts. Baron-Cohen holds the argument that autistic persons do not seem to develop a theory of mind.

In order to instigate his study, Baron-Cohen(1985) embarked on a mission to demonstrate differences in mind-reading ability between autistic children, Down's syndrome children and ordinary children. Children observed a scenario involving two puppet dolls: Sally and Ann who were on the desk. The children were tested consecutively. Sally had a basket infront of her and Ann had a box. The dolls were then introduced to the children (for example, 'this is Sally'). After the introduction of the dolls, the child's ability to name them was evaluated (the 'Naming Question').

Afterwards, Sally takes the marble and hides it in her basket. She then exits the room and 'goes for a walk'. While away 'on her walk', Ann takes the marble out of Sally's basket and puts in her own box. When Sally returns, the child is asked the significant question: 'Where will Sally look for her marble?'(the 'Belief Question'). The right answer is to point to or to name Sally's basket in order to indicate that the child knows that Sally believes the marble to be somewhere where it is not. The wrong response is to point to Ann's Box.

Two control questions were also asked: 'Where is the marble really?'(the 'Reality Question') and 'Where was the marble in the beginning?' (the 'Memory Question')

Each child was evaluated twice. During the second time, the marble changes its location to the experimenter's pocket. Once again, the autistic children pointed to where the marble really was. For the children to be successful, they have to attribute that Sally possesses beliefs about the world which can differ from their own beliefs and which happen in this case not to be true.

The percentages (%) of correct responses relating to the four 'Sally-Ann' questions are shown below:

Percentage of Correct Answers

Question Autistic Down's Syndrome Normal

Naming 100 100 100

Reality 100 100 100

Memory 100 100 100

Belief 20 86 85

It can be derived that:

The 'naming', 'reality' and 'memory' questions were answered correctly by all the children.

The 'belief question' was answered correctly by 20% (4 out of 20) of the autistic children, by 86% of the Down's Syndrome children and 85% of the 'normal' children.

The 16 autistic children who gave the wrong response on both trials pointed to where the marble really was rather than to where Sally must believe it to be.

The differences between the groups was statistically different.

The results support the hypothesis that children with autism, as a group, fail to employ a 'theory of mind' or have under-developed 'theories of mind'. As an autistic child cannot appreciate that Sally has beliefs different either from his or her own beliefs (or if we do not want to say the child even has a concept of his/her own beliefs per se, then the way the child thinks the world is), i.e. that the marble is where the child knows it is. When asked where Sally will look for the marble, the child will say that Sally will look where the marble is. This 'absence of theory of mind' could have several meanings. Maybe the child has some understanding of beliefs but a wrong understanding. For instance, maybe he/she thinks everyone else's beliefs are the same as hers or maybe she thinks that beliefs necessarily match reality (in other words, if Mary believes B, then B is always true).

Another possibility is what Fodor (1992) discusses. Maybe an autistic (or 3 year old) child has a comprehension of beliefs and even of false beliefs but her theory is of such a nature that she makes the wrong predictions in cases of false beliefs. If her theory states that regardless of people's beliefs, they should act in such a way that fulfills their desires as long as there is only one action that is in accordance with this fulfillment, then in this case, Sally should look for the marble where it is located if she wants to find it. In fact, when the subject is confronted with an ambiguous situation where it is not known where the marble is, but it is known where Sally/puppet/actor believes the marble is, then the correct answer is given (Sally will look for something where she believes it is). These results are found with normal 3 year olds who fail false belief tests. So in these cases, there is not a single course of action that Sally should pursue to fulfill her desire, so the child does take into account Sally's beliefs.

Yet another possibility is that children at times, do not interpret the questions they are asked in such an experiment correctly. Adult speakers know that the question asked: "Where will Sally look for the marble?" means "Where will Sally look for the marble FIRST?" not "Where will Sally look for the marble


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