The three mountains task
Jean Piaget’s work is one of the most significant contributions to developmental psychology. One of his many interests was in children’s ability to understand the perspective of other people. At the most simple, this concerned whether a child could understand that what another person sees is not necessarily the same as what the child can see.
Jean Piaget believed that young children are ‘egocentric’ in the sense that they have difficulty understanding perspectives that are different from their own. One of the pieces of evidence that supported his claim came from the ‘Three Mountains task’. Look at this task and see what happens with a child who is 4 years old. Is the young boy able to understand that sometimes a doll will see a different view to the one he can see?
Adult: Four cards, here, with pictures on. Pictures of mountains. Which picture shows what you can see from where you are?
Child: Um, all of them.
Adult: All of them? And which one looks most like what you can see? You know, the way the mountains look to you?
Child: Um, that one.
Adult: That one? That’s right. That’s right. If dolly were you, would she see the same as you?
Adult: That’s right. So which picture would be the right one for dolly as well?
Child: The same.
Adult: The same? That’s right. Now, if I put dolly over here, over there, which picture now shows what dolly can see?
Child: The same again.
Adult: The same. Point to the one, point to the card that you think shows …
Child: That one.
Adult: Lovely, okay.
Lewis, like most young children, was not successful in this task. So what happens with older children?
Older Children and the Three Mountains task
Piaget predicted that older children should, like adults, be able to take the perspectives of others. However, it is always important to check one’s predictions and we can watch what happens with a child who is 7 years old.
Adult: If the dolly was sat where you are, which picture would show what she can see?
Child: This one.
Adult: The same one. Yes, that’s right. Now, if I put dolly over here, okay, so she’s in a different place, which picture shows what she can see now?
Child: That one.
Adult: Lovely,that one. Very good.
The behaviour of younger and older children seems to give very good support to Piaget’s ideas about perspective taking. However, there have been important challenges to his conclusions.
Perspective Taking when Hiding from a Policeman
In the 1970s, a group of researchers working in Edinburgh were worried that the tasks Piaget used were abstract in nature and were difficult because they did not relate to the children’s everyday experiences. The researchers decided to see what happened when they used a task which involved perspective taking, but involved a much more familiar ‘game’ of hiding from someone. Look at this task and see what happens
Adult: Where can the little boy hide so the policeman can’t see him?
Adult: Brilliant. Okay. The policeman’s got a friend, okay, his friend stands there. Where can the little boy go now?
Adult: Ah, yes.
Hopefully you noticed with the three mountains task that Lewis said both he and the doll could see the same view, even when this was incorrect because the doll was placed to the side of the model mountains. This task seems to show, as Piaget claimed, that young children have difficulty taking the perspective of another person.
Hopefully, you also noticed that the child was able to hide the ‘robber’ from the policeman, even though the policemen had a different viewpoint to that of the child. In some circumstances children can take the perspective of others. All this emphasises that great care is needed when designing tasks to assess children’s abilities and that important ideas can be challenged by innovative and new methods.
Methods of studying children
The collection of articles, videos, photos and audio exploring child development has been made possible by a partnership between the British Psychological Society and The Open University Child and Youth Studies Group.