Ignorance = doing what is reasonable: Children expect ignorant agents to act based on prior knowledge

AbstractWhen deciding how to act in new situations, we expect agents to draw on relevant prior experiences. This expectation underlies many of our mental-state inferences, allowing us to infer agents’ prior knowledge from their current actions. Do children share this expectation, and use it to infer others’ epistemic states? In Experiment 1, we find that five- and six-year-olds (but not four-year-olds) attribute additional knowledge to agents whose prior experiences cannot explain their success. In Experiment 2, we find that six-year-olds (but not younger children) also attribute greater knowledge to agents whose prior experience cannot explain their failure. We show that by age five or six, children expect ignorant agents’ beliefs (and therefore their actions) to be guided by their prior knowledge. This work adds to a growing body of research suggesting that, while infants can represent mental states, the ability to infer mental states continues to develop throughout early childhood.

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