University of Oulu

Bosco FM and Gabbatore I (2017) Sincere, Deceitful, and Ironic Communicative Acts and the Role of the Theory of Mind in Childhood. Front. Psychol. 8:21. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00021

Sincere, deceitful, and ironic communicative acts and the role of the theory of mind in childhood

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Author: Bosco, Francesca M.1,2; Gabbatore, Ilaria1,3
Organizations: 1Department of Psychology, Center for Cognitive Science, University of Turin, Turin, Italy
2Neuroscience Institute of Turin, University of Turin, Turin, Italy
3Faculty of Humanities, Research Unit of Logopedics, Child Language Research Center, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland
Format: article
Version: published version
Access: open
Online Access: PDF Full Text (PDF, 0.2 MB)
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Language: English
Published: Frontiers Media, 2017
Publish Date: 2017-02-21


The aim of the study is to investigate the relationship among age, first- and second-order Theory of Mind and the increasing ability of children to understand and produce different kinds of communicative acts — sincere, ironic, and deceitful communicative acts — expressed through linguistic and extralinguistic expressive means. To communicate means to modify an interlocutor’s mental states (Grice, 1989), and pragmatics studies the inferential processes that are necessary to fill the gap, which often exists in human communication, between the literal meaning of a speaker’s utterance and what the speaker intends to communicate to the interlocutor. We administered brief video-clip stories showing different kinds of pragmatic phenomena — sincere, ironic, and deceitful communicative acts — and first- and second-order ToM tasks, to 120 children, ranging in age from 3 to 8 years. The results showed the existence of a trend of difficulty in children’s ability to deal with both linguistic and extralinguistic pragmatic tasks, from the simplest to the most difficult: sincere, deceitful, and ironic communicative acts. A hierarchical regression analysis indicated that age plays a significant role in explaining children’s performance on each pragmatic task. Furthermore, the hierarchical regression analysis revealed that first-order ToM has a causal role in explaining children’s performance in handling sincere and deceitful speech acts, but not irony. We did not detect any specific role for second-order ToM. Finally, ToM only partially explains the observed increasing trend of difficulty in children’s pragmatic performance: the variance in pragmatic performance explained by ToM increases between sincere and deceitful communicative acts, but not between deceit and irony. The role of inferential ability in explaining the improvement in children’s performance across the pragmatic tasks investigated is discussed.

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Series: Frontiers in psychology
ISSN: 1664-1078
ISSN-E: 1664-1078
ISSN-L: 1664-1078
Volume: 8
Article number: 21
DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00021
Type of Publication: A1 Journal article – refereed
Field of Science: 515 Psychology
6121 Languages
3112 Neurosciences
520 Other social sciences
615 History and archaeology
Funding: The research was funded by MIUR – Ministero Italiano dell’Università e della Ricerca – PRIN – Progetti di Ricerca di Rilevante Interesse Nazionale_2017. Project “The interpretative brain: Understanding and promoting pragmatic abilities across lifespan and in mental illness” project code 201577HA9M.
Copyright information: Copyright © 2017 Bosco and Gabbatore. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.