The development of executive functioning and theory of mind: A comparison of Chinese and U.S. preschoolers

Mark A. Sabbagh, Fen Xu, Stephanie M. Carlson, Louis J. Moses, Kang Lee

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Preschoolers' theory-of-mind development follows a similar age trajectory across many cultures. To determine whether these similarities are related to similar underlying ontogenetic processes, we examined whether the relation between theory of mind and executive function commonly found among U.S. preschoolers is also present among Chinese preschoolers. Preschoolers from Beijing, China (N= 109), were administered theory-of-mind and executive-functioning tasks, and their performance was compared with that of a previously studied sample of U.S. preschoolers (N= 107). The Chinese preschoolers outperformed their U.S. counterparts on all measures of executive functioning, but were not similarly advanced in theory-of-mind reasoning. Nonetheless, individual differences in executive functioning predicted theory of mind for children in both cultures. Thus, the relation between executive functioning and theory of mind is robust across two disparate cultures. These findings shed light on why executive functioning is important for theory-of-mind development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)74-81
Number of pages8
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2006
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by a Discovery Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to M. Sabbagh and by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grants to Mark Sabbagh and to Kang Lee and Fen Xu. We thank Wenjin Zhang and Wenxing Wang for assistance with data coding and collection, and Stanka Fitneva, Kate Harkness, and Valerie Kuhlmeier for helpful feedback on a previous draft.


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