Flexible goal attribution in early mindreading

John Michael*, Wayne Christensen

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    13 Citations (Scopus)


    The 2-systems theory developed by Apperly and Butterfill (2009; Butterfill & Apperly, 2013) is an influential approach to explaining the success of infants and young children on implicit false-belief tasks. There is extensive empirical and theoretical work examining many aspects of this theory, but little attention has been paid to the way in which it characterizes goal attribution. We argue here that this aspect of the theory is inadequate. Butterfill and Apperly's characterization of goal attribution is designed to show how goals could be ascribed by infants without representing them as related to other psychological states, and the minimal mindreading system is supposed to operate without employing flexible semanticexecutive cognitive processes. But research on infant goal attribution reveals that infants exhibit a high degree of situational awareness that is strongly suggestive of flexible semantic-executive cognitive processing, and infants appear moreover to be sensitive to interrelations between goals, preferences, and beliefs. Further, close attention to the structure of implicit mindreading tasks-for which the theory was specifically designed-indicates that flexible goal attribution is required to succeed. We conclude by suggesting 2 approaches to resolving these problems.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)219-227
    Number of pages9
    JournalPsychological Review
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


    • theory of mind
    • goal attribution
    • two-systems theory
    • infancy
    • cognitive development


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