Exploring Theory-of-Mind as a Social-Cognitive Developmental Mechanism for Social Loafing in Children

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Journal of Social Psychology


children, collaboration, development, loafing, theory of mind


The authors explored mental-state reasoning ability among 72 preschoolers (ages 3-5 years) as a possible developmental mechanism for the well-known social loafing effect: diminished individual effort in a collaborative task. The authors expected that older children would outperform young children on standard mental-state reasoning tests and that they would display greater social loafing than younger children. In addition, we hypothesized that the ability to infer the mental states of others would be predictive of social loafing, but that the ability to reason about one's own knowledge would not. The authors gave children three standard false-belief tasks and participated in a within-subjects balloon inflation task that they performed both individually and as part of a group. Results indicated that 3-year-olds performed significantly below older preschoolers on mental-state reasoning tasks. Only 4- and 5-year-olds displayed diminished individual effort. Multiple regression analysis indicated that only the ability to reason about others' false beliefs accounted for a significant amount of variance in social loafing; age (in months) and own false-belief reasoning did not. The authors discussed theoretical and pedagogical implications.