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A Cooperation Advantage for Theory of Mind in Children and Adults

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Three studies test whether people engage in mental state reasoning or theory of mind (ToM) differently across two fundamental social contexts: cooperation and competition. Study 1 examines how children with an emerging understanding of false beliefs deploy ToM across these contexts. We find that young preschool children are better able to plant false beliefs in others' minds in a cooperative versus competitive context; this difference does not emerge for other cognitive capacities tested (e.g., executive functioning, memory). Studies 2a and 2b reveal the same systematic difference in adults' ToM for cooperation and competition, even after accounting for relevant predictors (e.g., preference for a task condition, feelings about deception). Together, these findings provide initial evidence for enhanced ToM for cooperation versus competition in early development and also adulthood.