The predator-avoidance effect: An evolved constraint on emerging theory of mind

Bruce J. Ellis, Ashley C. Jordan, Jason Grotuss, Adriana Csinady, Thomas Keenan, David F. Bjorklund

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The present research examined whether children's ability to impute false belief is overridden or impaired by content that activates an early-developing, prepotent motivational system: predator avoidance. In three studies, children aged 3 to 8. years completed variants of a false-belief test, including analogous predator-avoidance and playmate-avoidances scenarios, in which passing the test meant having the focal character get caught by the pursuer. The proportion of correct answers in the playmate-avoidance scenario was reliably greater than in the predator-avoidance scenario, though this effect largely dissipated by 7 to 8. years of age. Enhanced predatory stimuli significantly increased the frequency of false-belief errors in the predator-avoidance scenario (Study 3). Analysis of children's justifications revealed that predator-avoidance false-belief errors were overwhelming motivated by a desire for the prey to avoid the predator (Study 2). The predator-avoidance effect was not an artifact of children generally performing better in playmate than predator-prey scenarios (Studies 1 and 3), the predator-avoidance scenario simply evoking strong emotions (Study 3), or differences between children in their knowledge of predator-prey relationships (Study 1) or executive-function abilities (Study 2). Findings support the hypothesis that activation of the predator-avoidance system generates prepotent response patterns that impair or override full consideration of the mental states of the prey characters in false-belief stories.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)245-256
Number of pages12
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2014


  • Evolutionary cognitive psychology
  • Executive function
  • False belief
  • Predator-avoidance
  • Theory of mind

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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