Andrew Hon reviews:

Nichols, Shaun and Stich, Stephen
A Cognitive Theory of Pretense
Cognition 74 (August 2000): 115-147


The authors of this paper feel that "pretense" has not been described sufficiently from a cognitive point of view. They use a couple of examples to highlight certain key features of pretense around which their theory is organized. A key element of Nichols' and Stich's model is the Possible World Box, which is a separate mental workspace that houses pretense representations. They argue that the representations in the PWB can have the same content as beliefs, and even go so far as to suggest that pretense representations are in the same representational "code" as beliefs and that the representations in the PWB are processed by the same inference and UpDating mechanisms that operate over real beliefs. Their model posits a Script Elaborator which is implicated in the embellishment that occurs in pretense. Finally, they claim that pretend play behavior is not motivated by likewise "pretend desires", but from a real desire to act in an appropriate way to the description being contructed in the PWB. They maintain that their account can accommodate the central features of pretense exhibited in examples of pretense, and they argue that the alternative accounts either cannot accommodate or fail to address entirely some of the central fetaures of pretense.


The authors first examine a few examples of pretense in children and adults to point out certain key features of pretense. With this "checklist" in mind they lay out their theory of the cognitive mechanisms that underlie pretense and show how their model fits all the key criteria. Finally they sketch out some of the other ideas of pretense that have been offered and argue that their own theory is better.

The key features of pretense, exemplified with work by Alan Leslie, include:

  1. The Initial Premise: a basic assumption about what is to be pretended.
  2. Inferential Elaboration: filling out the details of what is happening in pretense.
  3. Non-inferential Elaboration: non-trivial elaboration--more creative, less predictable embellishment.
  4. Production of Appropriate Pretend Behavior: self-explanatory, but raises the question of why do participants engage in these often odd behaviors?
  5. Cognitive Quarantine: the limited effects of pretense on the later cognitive state of the pretender. i.e., the pretenders don't really end up believing that the pretended events really happened "in real life".

Nichols' and Stich's start by laying out the basic, commonly accepted flow chart of cognition. They then diagram their own modification to the model, which consists of an "Inference Mechanism" box bidirectionally connected to the Beliefs box and to a "Possible World" box via an "Updater" subsection. Finally a "Script Elaborator" maps to the "Possible World" box.

I note that their Possible World box is not connected to the Desires box. The reason for this is because they posit that real desires, not "pretend" desires, motivate a person to pretend act, albeit in accordance to what the person understands via the Possible World Box. Similarly, the beliefs held in the Possible World Box are real beliefs, not beliefs predicated by an "I pretend that...", just that these beliefs are held separately in a PWB.

These are important points because Nichols and Stich spend the remaining half of their paper rebutting alternate models of pretense that more or less share the attribute of positing some predicate "I pretend" (e.g. "meta-representation" or an understanding of pretense cognition states). They argue that there is no evidence among their pretense examples (which are representative of many kinds and ages of pretense), especially among younger participants (age 2 or younger) that they have any awareness of a distinction between a "pretend" cognitive state versus a real cognitive state, in themselves or much less other people.


Nichols' and Stich's model of pretense cognition makes much more intuitive sense than the alternate "meta-cognition" models of pretense cognition do. Their positing of a Possible World Box, which contains real beliefs rather than "pretend beliefs" is the key element which brings their model to a coherent whole. Additionally, their arguments based on the example of the very young child (or even baby) who easily enters into pretend play with a mother who uses a banana as a phone are strikingly convincing.

From a personal standpoint, reminiscing on childhood play by myself and with my roommate, the idea of a Possible World Box containing real beliefs and being acted upon accordingly makes a lot of sense. Pretend play happens very naturally and convincingly; it is not hampered by the sort of qualifying "I pretend that I believe this; I pretend that I will do this". One simply believes and acts in accordance to the PWB context.

Further examples of this quality of pretend play occur in fiction literature, role playing games, computer games, all sorts of games in fact, and in countless other human activities (including kinky reproductive activities). My personal experience supporting the nature of unqualified beliefs in the Possible World Box is a memory of playing a computer role playing game and being so frightened by the imaginary happenings in the imaginary electronic world that was represented through a primitive interface that I literally had stomach problems. The "realism" of this pretend world, represented in my PWB, was enough to cause actual physical reactions in my body. And yet, away from my computer game, I was not traumatized in everyday life by the monsters and ghosts that had frightened me within the context of the game.

I am slightly concerned that this paper I chose, although approved by Linda, may not be as empirically based as desired by the assignment. The only sort of data or results used were the examples of certain people acting in pretend situations. These examples were more anecdotal than "data-oriented". Nevertheless I believe that the methodology of forming the cognitive model of pretense cognition, at our current level of technology is justified. At this stage the model can only be formed through introspection, anecdotal extrapolation, and logical argumentation.


As the authors themselves noted at the beginning of their paper, theory of pretense cognition has not been subject to much attention or analysis. Consequently, although their Possible World Box and such model of pretense cognition makes much intuitive sense, more empirical evidence is needed to support it. There are a multitude of questions raised in and resulting from the key criteria section, as listed above.

What are the motivations behind pretend behavior? One can argue that certain pretend behaviors allow one to explore possibilities and possible ramifications of hypothetical situations, thus resulting in experience gained without possible negative consequences. However, a lot of pretend play, especially among young children, do not have so obviously beneficial consequences. A study examining performance before and after pretend simulation of a certain task could shed some light here.

How is it that the participants in pretend behavior ("pretenders") can distinguish between pretend occurences and real life? Actually, I question this assumption: how well can we really distinguish between pretend occurences and real life? I posit that our ability to distinguish actually lies on some continuum, with misleading dreams and false memories on one extreme, to drunken states of play on the other. A study similar to the false memory studies that had participants mentally visualize occurences, except with particpants engaging in pretend play situations, likewise could illuminate this issue.






Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles