Do humans have two systems to track beliefs and belief-like states?

Ian Apperly, SA Butterfill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

562 Citations (Scopus)


The lack of consensus on how to characterize humans' capacity for belief reasoning has been brought into sharp focus by recent research. Children fail critical tests of belief reasoning before 3 to 4 years of age (H. Wellman, D. Cross, & J. Watson, 2001; H. Wimmer & J. Perner, 1983), yet infants apparently pass false-belief tasks at 13 or 15 months (K. H. Onishi & R. Baillargeon, 2005; L. Surian, S. Caldi, & D. Sperber, 2007). Nonhuman animals also fail critical tests of belief reasoning but can show very complex social behavior (e.g., J. Call & M. Tomasello, 2005). Fluent social interaction in adult humans implies efficient processing of beliefs, yet direct tests suggest that belief reasoning is cognitively demanding, even for adults (e.g., I. A. Apperly, D. Samson, & G. W. Humphreys, 2009). The authors interpret these findings by drawing an analogy with the domain of number cognition, where similarly contrasting results have been observed. They propose that the success of infants and nonhuman animals on some belief reasoning tasks may be best explained by a cognitively efficient but inflexible capacity for tracking belief-like states. In humans, this capacity persists in parallel with a later-developing, more flexible but more cognitively demanding theory-of-mind abilities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)953-70
Number of pages18
JournalPsychological Review
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2009


  • development
  • comparative
  • theory of mind
  • adult
  • false belief


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