Theory of Mind and Teaching in ni-Vanuatu children

PhD Dissertation Project

Teaching and Theory of Mind are two key social learning strategies and psychological mechanisms that some argue support cumulative culture.  Theory of Mind refers to ‘mind-reading’, or the ability to simulate what others think, know, sense, want, and feel. Much research has been devoted to the understanding of False Beliefs, i.e. understanding that others can hold subjective beliefs that conflict with external reality. Teaching is a form or cooperative learning in which knowledgeable individuals modify their behaviour in a way that facilitates learning for others.


In my doctoral work, I examined how children learn to teach and reason about teaching, and how both relate to explicit Theory of Mind. I examined the hypothesized causal connection between these traits, and to what extent these are themselves shaped by cultural evolution. To this end, I conducted cognitive experiments on the development of children. My dissertation fieldwork took me to Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific where I completed 11 months of field work. Mine is one of the first studies to examine connections between social cognition and social learning in a small-scale society.


I found:


1) Rural ni-Vanuatu children show a slower developmental trajectory for False Belief understanding compared to Western children, but additional controls in which they had to justify their responses suggest that some False Beliefs tasks are not reliable indicators of ni-Vanuatu children’s true mind-reading abilities, indicating that previous studies have underestimated their Theory of Mind.


2) ni-Vanuatu children’s developing teaching strategies differ from those of Western children. Unlike Western children, who transition from mostly gestural to increasingly verbal teaching in the preschool years, many ni-Vanuatu children continue to rely on physical demonstrations, gestures, simple commands, and mutual turn-taking even if they are older, reflecting local conventions of cultural transmission. ni-Vanuatu children also reason about teaching in ways that differ markedly from Western children. When reflecting on their own teaching, Western children transition from restating what they taught to reflecting on their communication strategies, and from using their own teaching as evidence that learning occurred to taking the learner's perspective into account, again by the end of their preschool years. In contrast, ni-Vanuatu children tend to focus on the content of what they taught and use their own teaching as evidence that learning occurred even if they are older, which may reflect local conceptions of knowledge and culture learning. 

3) In contrast to some recent work on the subject, market integration (proximity to urban markets, exposure to formal education and wage labour, and seasonal labour migration into Western cultural environments) had no impact on children’s developing cognition.

You can read the thesis here.


History of the Axial Age

Research Assistantship

The team at SESHAT: Global History Databank came together to examine the history of egalitarian norms and institutions, constraints on political power, and moralizing religious beliefs across the globe. Some argue that these traits first emerged with the so-called Axial Age (the period between 800 and 200 BCE) in large-scale societies located in present-day Greece, Israel, Iran, India, and China. However, when examining historical data for a broad range of cultures, we found little support for the concept of the Axial Age. We have described our findings in an edited volume

I contributed a chapter where I examined small-scale societies in Northern India, Siberia, North America, Papua New Guinea, Borneo, and the Amazon Basin. Many of these societies not only had egalitarian norms and formal constraints on the authority of leaders - a fact that is well known to anthropologists. In contrast to received wisdom, some also had religious beliefs and rituals with prosocial and moralizing elements, although these differed systematically from the universalizing structure of punishment and reward in Axial religions. 

You can read the chapter here.

Images show a Sakha elder, a group of Haudenosaunee chiefs with wampum beads, and an Iban longhouse community in Borneo (Source: Wikimedia Commons). 

Iban House Nanga_Badau_West-Borneo._TMnr