Ownership in children: is this form of self-referential processing associated with theory of mind development?
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Self-relevant information is remembered better than information encoded in relation to other people or impersonal encoding tasks: this is the self-reference effect (SRE). As part of the extended self, self-owned objects are remembered better than those belonging to others. The self-concept is widely believed to be inextricably linked with Theory of Mind (ToM), which is well-developed in most by around four years. This suggests that young children, capable of differentiating self from others, may have potential to preferentially process self-relevant information. It has been difficult to assess early development of the SRE, as the trait-recall paradigm typically used with adults is unsuitable for children. However, children have been shown to remember self-owned objects better than those owned by others, so the current study used an ownership paradigm to investigate whether preschool children are capable of showing the SRE. Pairs of children aged between three and five years (n = 22) sorted 64 pictures of toys into self- and other-owned baskets, then performed a surprise recognition test. There was no significant difference between recognition of self- and other-owned items. Recognition of self-owned items increased significantly with age, but recognition of other-owned items did not. There was no significant relationship between the size of the SRE and ToM development or verbal ability. There was no difference in the size of the SRE between children who had siblings and who had no siblings, and between monolingual and bilingual children. Reasons for the present findings are discussed.