Task constraints distinguish perspective inferences from perspective use during discourse interpretation in a false belief task

Heather J Ferguson, Ian Apperly, Jumana Ahmad, Markus Bindemann, James Cane

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13 Citations (Scopus)
133 Downloads (Pure)


Interpreting other peoples' actions relies on an understanding of their current mental states (e.g. beliefs, desires and intentions). In this paper, we distinguish between listeners' ability to infer others' perspectives and their explicit use of this knowledge to predict subsequent actions. In a visual-world study, two groups of participants (passive observers vs. active participants) watched short videos, depicting transfer events, where one character ('Jane') either held a true or false belief about an object's location. We tracked participants' eye-movements around the final visual scene, time-locked to related auditory descriptions (e.g. "Jane will look for the chocolates in the container on the left".). Results showed that active participants had already inferred the character's belief in the 1s preview period prior to auditory onset, before it was possible to use this information to predict an outcome. Moreover, they used this inference to correctly anticipate reference to the object's initial location on false belief trials at the earliest possible point (i.e. from "Jane" onwards). In contrast, passive observers only showed evidence of a belief inference from the onset of "Jane", and did not show reliable use of this inference to predict Jane's behaviour on false belief trials until much later, when the location ("left/right") was auditorily available. These results show that active engagement in a task activates earlier inferences about others' perspectives, and drives immediate use of this information to anticipate others' actions, compared to passive observers, who are susceptible to influences from egocentric or reality biases. Finally, we review evidence that using other peoples' perspectives to predict their behaviour is more cognitively effortful than simply using one's own.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-70
Number of pages21
Early online date22 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015


  • Theory of mind
  • False belief
  • Eye-tracking
  • Perspective use
  • Cognitive effort


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