Language and the Development of Cognitive Flexibility: Implications for Theory of Mind

Sophie Jacques, Philip David Zelazo

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

17 Scopus citations


This chapter examines the labeling function of language, in this case as an aid to cognitive flexibility. It reinterprets the relation between language and theory of mind in terms of language-related effects on cognitive flexibility. Central to its argument is the claim that most of the variance on theory-of-mind tasks can be attributed to the development of flexible perspective taking. It recasts the theory of mind as cognitive flexibility, arguing that, although it undoubtedly involves the acquisition of mental concepts, the use of these concepts necessarily involves cognitive flexibility-the ability to consider multiple representations of a single object or event. The chapter then reviews a number of studies demonstrating that labeling relevant stimuli promotes children's cognitive flexibility, and offers a number of suggestions for how labeling might similarly help theoryof-mind performance. On the other hand, this chapter argues that the arbitrary nature of labels is itself facilitative: because labels typically do not resemble their referents, they help create psychological distance between the symbol user and the external stimuli to which the symbols refer.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWhy Language Matters for Theory of Mind
EditorsJ W Astington, J A Baird
Place of PublicationNew York, NY
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780199847150
ISBN (Print)9780195159912
StatePublished - 2005

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Oxford University Press, 2014.


  • Children
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • External stimuli
  • Labeling
  • Language
  • Mental concepts
  • Psychological distance
  • Theory of mind


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