When Sally-Anne met Sunny-Jane

Whenever I want to have my worldview adjusted in weird ways without going offline, I turn Michael Steven’s Vsauce Channel, which is dedicated to turning its viewers’ brains inside out.

The other day, I was watching a Vsauce video called “Is Your Red the Same as My Red?” which starts out with the idea that we may never know if the color each of us was taught to call red is the same color everyone else was taught to call red, and moves into the idea that animals, even higher primates, don’t appear to have a Theory of Mind—an understanding that other beings have separate minds and may have knowledge that differs from one’s own.

Apparently, we know that primates don’t have a Theory of Mind because even the ones who have learned to communicate with us, through sign language, never ask questions about what humans might know that apes don’t.  They assume that their knowledge base is ours.

And up until the age or four or so, human beings don’t have a Theory of Mind, either.

It was explained that this doesn’t mean they don’t have curiosity, which kept me from crying foul over the thousands of questions my kids asked between the moment they could say,”Why, Mommy?” and the moment they stopped paying attention to my answers.

But they don’t quite get Point of View.

One test for Theory of Mind is called the Sally-Anne Test.

You can watch the video’s example here, but basically, the test subject is told a story with pictures.


Sally and Anne are in a room with a box and a basket.  They also have a cookie.

Sally puts the cookie in the box and leaves the room.

Anne moves the cookie into the basket.

Sally comes back into the room.

The test subject is then asked, “Where will Sally look for the cookie?”

Pre-Kindergarten test subjects will usually answer that Sally will look in the basket, because they know the cookie is in the basket, and while they also know that Sally left the room, they don’t make the connection that Sally’s world view and knowledge base will be different from theirs.

I’m  fascinated by this.

It explains why my kids assumed I knew everything that happened at day care, much to our mutual frustration—and why they’re now convinced/hopeful/praying I won’t know anything that they’re up to (or not up to) at school, though that’s a slightly different kind of disconnect.

But Theory of Mind is also crucial to effective writing:  readers only have the knowledge that we give them in the story, but they don’t always have the knowledge that the characters do.  Or vice versa.  And the characters can’t know anything unless they’ve been told or were present or are telepathic.

Writers have to keep track of their cookies.

And so, as it turns out, do parents.

“Hey, kids,” I said.  “C’mere, I want to show you something.”

They did, and I gave them the test.

brownie“So where,” I said, “would Sally look for the cookie?”

“The box,” said Jane, who is eleven.

“The basket,” said Sunny, who is six.

“Why?” I asked, suddenly concerned about Sunny’s development.

“Because that’s where Sally left the cookie,” Jane said, rolling her eyes at me.

“Because she was looking through the doorway and the box didn’t have a lid,” Sunny said.  “And the basket had holes, so she could see the cookie.”

“She wasn’t looking through the doorway,” I said.  “The box had a lid, and the basket didn’t have holes.”

“Oh.  You didn’t say that. My basket has holes.  You can see right through the weavy stuff.”

“Okay, but that isn’t part of the test—”

“Maybe Sally didn’t trust Anne,” Jane said thoughtfully tapping her finger on the table.  “And that’s why she could’ve been looking through the doorway.”

“She wasn’t looking—”

“You don’t know that, Mom.  She did put the cookie away before she left, like she knew Anne would take it.  And maybe she saw Anne smiling when she came back and just knew.  Like I know when Sunny takes my stuff.”

Sunny nodded.  “Sally should have tooken it with her.  I bet she looked in the basket next and got mad.”  She blinked.  “Hey!  I didn’t take your stuff.”

“Not now you didn’t.  But you do.  You’re always trying to take my—”

“I do not, Janie!  Mommy?”

“You do, too.”

“I don’t. Mommy?”

I rubbed my eyes.  “Uh-huh?”

“Can I have a cookie?”

“Me, too!” Jane said.  “Peanut butter!”

Sunny wrinkled her nose.  “Yuck.”


Image of Sally and Anne from “Is your Red the Same as My Red,” which is owned by Vsauce and its brilliant and non-litigious creator Michael Stevens.


5 thoughts on “When Sally-Anne met Sunny-Jane

Talk to me!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s