Note: Thanks to Iapetus for inspiring this post with his comment on The Fundamental Attribution Error and Character Sympathy
The False Belief Task is often used by psychologists to test social cognition. One version goes something like this.
1. Sally has a favorite marble. She puts her marble in a basket, and then leaves the room.
2. Anne, being very mean, enters the room when Sally is not there and and moves the marble to the cupboard.
3. When Sally comes back into the room, where does she look for her marble?
If you answered, the basket, then congratulations, you have well developed theory of mind abilities. Of course, Sally doesn't find the marble there. She has a false belief about the location of the marble.
The tasks seems trivially easy for adults, but kids below the age of five consistently say that Sally will look for the marble in the cupboard, where Anne put it. It seems that the ability to represent someone else beliefs as something different from what you know about the world develops later on in childhood.
But even though adults can do the Sally-Anne task, we sometimes still fall prey to the mistaken notion that other people think the same way we do. Lets take an example from When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead.
Sixth grader Miranda doesn't like Julia because she's annoying. When making self portraits in art class, Julia asks for "cafe au lait" construction paper to match her skin. She also brags about the fancy vacations she takes with her parents and shows off all the souvenirs her parents buy her. Miranda can't understand why her friend Annemarie used to be best friends with Julia.
One day, Julia shows up at the restaurant where Miranda and Annemarie work. Miranda first worries that the restaurant owner will invite Julia to work with them. But to her surprise, Jimmy (the restaurant owner) immediately kicks Julia out of the restaurant and tells her never to come back. Miranda is delighted.
"Out," Jimmy said, practically growling. "Now."
After she left, I pretended along with Annemarie that Jimmy was a little bit crazy, but as we walked back to school with our cheese-and-lettuce sandwiches, I carried a new warm feeling inside. Jimmy could be a grouch, but he saw right through Julia, just like I did.
See how Miranda automatically assumed that Jimmy disliked Julia for the same reasons she did? It's only later that she realizes Jimmy had completely different reasons. Julia was black, and Jimmy didn't want her around because he believed black people were genetically wired to be dishonest. It was a nice twist and an important moment of growth for Miranda.
Have you ever read or written anything that used false belief to good dramatic effect?