A cognitive theory of pretense

Shaun Nichols, Stephen Stich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

246 Scopus citations


Recent accounts of pretense have been underdescribed in a number of ways. In this paper, we present a much more explicit cognitive account of pretense. We begin by describing a number of real examples of pretense in children and adults. These examples bring out several features of pretense that any adequate theory of pretense must accommodate, and we use these features to develop our theory of pretense. On our theory, pretense representations are contained in a separate mental workspace, a Possible World Box which is part of the basic architecture of the human mind. The representations in the Possible World Box can have the same content as beliefs. Indeed, we suggest that pretense representations are in the same representational 'code' as beliefs and that the representations in the Possible World Box are processed by the same inference and UpDating mechanisms that operate over real beliefs. Our model also posits a Script Elaborator which is implicated in the embellishment that occurs in pretense. Finally, we claim that the behavior that is seen in pretend play is motivated not from a 'pretend desire', but from a real desire to act in a way that fits the description being constructed in the Possible World Box. We maintain that this account can accommodate the central features of pretense exhibited in the examples of pretense, and we argue that the alternative accounts either can't accommodate or fail to address entirely some of the central features of pretense. Copyright (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)115-147
Number of pages33
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 14 2000


  • Cognitive architecture
  • Imagination
  • Metarepresentation
  • Possible World
  • Pretense
  • Simulation
  • Theory of mind

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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