The Toddlers Are on to You - Pacific Standard

The Toddlers Are on to You

A new study suggests children as young as 13 months understand more about social interactions and intentions than we'd previously thought.
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This toddler might have a better idea of what's going on than he's probably given credit for. (Photo: eflon/Flickr)

This toddler might have a better idea of what's going on than he's probably given credit for. (Photo: eflon/Flickr)

Your toddler might be even more perceptive than you think. New research suggests that children as young as 13 months can understand that people's judgments of their peers aren't always true or accurate. The claim is likely to remain controversial, but if correct, it suggests that human beings develop a deep understanding of the social world around them much earlier than previously thought.

At issue is what psychologists call theory of mind. Roughly speaking, that’s the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes and reason based on their beliefs, even if those beliefs are demonstrably false. Theory of mind is so ingrained in us that it can be difficult to comprehend life without it. For example, say everybody knows Bill’s cheating on Amy—everybody except Amy, who denies any wrongdoing. Because we understand Amy might not know about Bill’s infidelity, her non-suspicious behavior makes sense. After all, she doesn’t know the truth about Bill.

You-jung Choi and Yuyan Luo have entered the debate with an experiment in which 48 infants, all 13-months-old, watched a sequence of puppet shows depicting different social situations. 

Exactly when individuals first develop theory of mind—in particular this concept of false beliefs—remains unclear. While some experiments appear to show infants having the false-beliefs idea, others have questioned whether that’s the right way to interpret the data.

Now, psychologists You-jung Choi and Yuyan Luo have entered the debate with an experiment in which 48 infants, all 13-months-old, watched a sequence of puppet shows depicting different social situations. Each sequence began with four shows in which two puppets—call them Andy and Blair—dance and laugh and bounce up and down with each other. In the next show a third puppet—let's say Colby—enters. Blair promptly punches Colby in the face. For 16 kids, Alex was there to witness the walloping; for another 16, Alex was absent. For the rest, the punch is clearly unintentional—as Alex watches, Blair turns and accidentally knocks Colby down.

Afterward, the researchers tracked how long kids watched each of two shows, one featuring Alex and Blair dancing together, suggesting they were still friends, and another featuring Blair dancing alone while Alex turns his puppet gaze on the infants. Following previous experiments, Choi and Luo argue that whichever kids watch longer is more confusing—the one, in other words, kids don’t expect. 

By that measure, kids expected Alex wouldn’t dance with Blair after witnessing the latter’s outburst, and they didn’t really expect one or the other when the punch was an accident. Most telling was what happened when Alex didn’t witness the punch: In that case, by the watching-time measure, kids expected Alex would stay friendly with Blair.

That result, Choi and Luo write in Psychological Science, means that 13-month-old infants understand Alex has a false belief about Blair and the pair will stay friends despite Blair’s thuggish behavior. “The preparations for young children to venture into and deal with different relations ... may start earlier than previously though.” 

The issue is far from settled, though. One criticism of false-belief experiments is that they assume we can infer kids' thinking from how long they watch puppet shows—an assumption that our theory of kids' minds is correct.

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