Attitude Verbs (Valentine Hacquard, 5/4)

When children are learning words, they acquire new words by noticing how words are used. This is all well and good, but when people use words like “think”, “want”, or “believe”, it can be hard for a kid to figure out a concrete relationships. While “want” is easy for kids, “believe” takes a long time to acquire. Researchers used to believe this has to do with when kids acquire the ideas (they believed kids took longer to understand different people had different beliefs), but new studies suggest otherwise. Read the slides or the notes below for more information.

Attitude verbs – Valentine Hacquard

How do children understand words?

  • Association? Word is said in multiple contexts?

This works okay with concrete words, maybe. But what about words like think and want?

Acquiring semantic competence

  • Meaning of each word
  • Rules that dictate how words are put together
  • Pragmatics – people mean more than what they say
    • Example: When Mom says ‘Nice boys don’t throw things at alligators’, she means “Stop throwing things at the alligator!”
    • This sentence is meaningless in the literal sense, so we must then infer what Mom’s intent is

Attitude verbs – verbs used to report mental states (think, want)

  • These are not directly observable
  • What someone thinks and wants does not have to align with reality
  • Doesn’t help that these are often used to convey other meanings
  • Attitude verbs nest sentences
    • I think that Mary is home (“Mary is home” is a sentence)

Interestingly, think is acquired late (age 5) but not want (age 3)

Conceptual Development Hypothesis: Think is acquired late because [belief] is acquired late; want is acquired earlier because [desire] is acquired earlier.

There is evidence that children do not understand that other people may have different beliefs or opinions until they are four (theory of mine)

Scenario: Colin and Mike both want a cupcake Mike put in the fridge. Mike goes away, and Colin moves the cupcake from the fridge to the cupboard. When Mike comes back, where will he look for the cupcake?

  • 5+ years old – He will look in the fridge
  • 4- years old – He will look in the cupboard, because that’s where it is

But wait!

Recent studies show that infants (as early as seven months old) can pass this non-verbally!

  • Infants look more at surprising things
  • If you play the scenario again, infants are surprised if Mike goes to the cupboard, but not if he goes to the fridge.
  • Also, if you ask the four-year-old children to act out the scenario with a Mike doll, they take Mike to the fridge.
  • Suggests a disconnect between conceptual understanding and linguistic ability

So, why is think hard and not want?

Hypothesis: Children learn the right semantics and understand that people can have false beliefs, but they don’t understand what people mean when they use it (pragmatics).

Sentence evaluation:

Mike thinks that the cupcake is in the fridge, but it’s really in the cupboard.

“Mike thinks the cupcake is in the cupboard” <- This is false

But the child responds to “the cupcake is in the cupboard”, which is true

This may be because adults are confusing


A: Why is John not coming to our meetings?
B: Mary thinks that he’s in Miami.
C: Nuh-uh! He’s here!

Adults often use think to endorse other people’s beliefs, telling listeners that their statement is hearsay. People will say, “Colin thinks the cupcake is in the fridge”, which usually means “The cupcake is in the fridge”. Therefore, maybe children learn think to mean a statement of truth, whereas they often want things they don’t actually receive.

Conflicting beliefs: Here, a think sentence is using “think” literally.

Do kids understand what think means when beliefs conflict?

  • Story about hide and seek
  • 1 seeker
    • “Dora thinks Swiper is behind the toy box” when in fact he is behind the curtain
    • Kids reject this sentence
  • 2 seekers
    • “Dora thinks Swiper is behind the toy box”
      “Boots thinks that Swiper is behind the toy box”
      Swiper is behind the toy box
    • Kids should understand the meaning of “think” here correctly

Yes, they do!

So what about when the word “think” isn’t used? Kids still respond incorrectly.

  • Young kids are nice and helpful to people. Innately. (Sadly, they grow out of this.)
    • Maybe they want to reunite Mike with his cupcake
  • This experiment is weird, because the speaker knows the answer, even if Mike doesn’t. Children aren’t exposed to speakers testing their knowledge until school.

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