Relative Facts and the Joys of Testing Out Mind Experiments on Your Toddler

Wednesday August 10, 2016

There is something deeply deeply fascinating about the way infants and toddlers think. For a long time, they don’t talk, and then they talk and you’re left dumbfounded by the way they think the world works.

I once read about a little boy correcting his dad that people don’t walk away, they get smaller. The boy actually thought people literally shrunk as they went away.

We’ve been experiencing a gap in children’s perception of facts recently.Three year olds assume everything is an objective fact, known to everyone. I first noticed this because Bean’s become much more conversational with the great wide world; every stranger on the street is just a friend waiting to happen.

It’s become clear that she doesn’t understand relative truth: that she can know something while others do not. For example:


Friendly stranger at the market: “Oooh! You have a braid in your hair!”

Bean: “YEAH! Evvie don’t have a braid today, though.”

Friendly stranger at the market: “Oh. No?”

Bean: “No. And and and Evvie don’t have a braid and Evan wasn’t at school today either. Evan’s a boy.”

Friendly stranger at the market: “Ha ha! Well, you are cute! Have a good day!”


This is what a conversation looks like when you don’t understand relative truth. Bean assumes that the stranger knows who these children are and why she would talk about them in relation to her braided hair; basically, that these are universal facts. (Bean’s braids are inspired by her classmates Evvie’s braids. It’s significant to her that Evvie didn’t have braids today. Bean also has a habit of confusing Evvie and Evan, because of their similar names, and she tries to keep them straight by remembering which one is the girl or the boy. She didn’t confuse them today, though, because one of them was absent.)

Three year olds and five year olds straddle the concept of relative facts. It turns out this is concept very easy to test. Perfect for some at-home psychological experiments!

You’ll have to tell your preschooler a variation of this story:

A cowboy comes over to a log to sit and have some lunch. He takes his sandwich out of his bag and puts it on the log. Oh! But wait! He forgot his water bottle. He leaves his sandwich on the log and walks away to get his water bottle.

While he’s away, a cowgirl sits down to eat her own lunch. While she’s getting her sandwich out of her bag, she knocks the cowboy’s sandwich to the ground! Oh no! She takes out her sandwich and puts it on the log. But! Wait! She forgot her coffee! She walks away to get her coffee. The cowboy comes back to eat his sandwich.

Which sandwich does he think is his? The one on the log or the one on the ground?

Your three year old preschooler will first smile like she’s got this one IN THE BAG, and announce, THE SANDWICH ON THE GROUND!!!

A five year old would tell you that the cowboy thinks the sandwich on the log is his, because he doesn’t know that the cowgirl knocked his sandwich to the ground.

It’s a relative fact.

I’m kind of excited to test this out in a year or two and see if/when Bean gives me a different response. For now, it’s just kind of fascinating.


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