A nonverbal false belief task: The performance of children and great apes

J Call*, M Tomasello

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

328 Citations (Scopus)


A nonverbal task of false belief understanding was given to 4- and 5-year-old children (N = 28) and to two species of great ape: chimpanzees and orangutans (N = 7). The task was embedded in a series of finding games in which an adult (the hider) hid a reward in one of two identical containers, and another adult (the communicator) observed the hiding process and attempted to help the participant by placing a marker on the container that she believed to hold the reward. An initial series of control trials ensured that participants were able to use the marker to locate the reward, follow the reward in both visible and invisible displacements, and ignore the marker when they knew it to be incorrect. In the crucial false belief trials, the communicator watched the hiding process and then left the area, at which time the hider switched the locations of the containers. When the communicator returned, she marked the container at the location where she had seen the reward hidden, which was incorrect. The hider then gave the subject the opportunity to find the sticker. Successful performance required participants to reason as follows: the communicator placed the marker where she saw the reward hidden; the container that was at that location is now at the other location; so the reward is at the other location. Children were also given a verbal false belief task in the context of this same hiding game. The two main results of the study were: (1) children's performance on the verbal and nonverbal false belief tasks were highly correlated (and both fit very closely with age norms from previous studies), and (2) no ape succeeded in the nonverbal false belief task even though they succeeded in all of the control trials indicating mastery of the general task demands.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)381-395
Number of pages15
JournalChild Development
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1999


  • MIND


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