In praise of babies

This post was originally published in 2006 on the Alphapsy blog.

No news in this post: its only aim is to remind us of how socially savvy babies are. A review paper in press in trends in cognitive sciences sums up the evidence from developmental psychology and neuroscience.

During a conference a few months ago, some members of the audience were taken aback by Jesse Prinz’ remark that “babies are dumb”. Well, they might not be at ease in the high realms of philosophy, as he is, but they do a lot of pretty smart things, especially in the domain of social cognition (as this paper reminds us; see also this very interesting paper with a different take on the data). Here are some results.



When we see someone staring at something yet unidentified, we all feel compelled to follow her gaze. Well, newborns do it too (see Hood et al. 1998): from the youngest age, we are interested in the things that interest others.



From the youngest age, we are also interested in what others do, and we can try to imitate them. In a very telling study, György Gergely and his collaborators have shown that 14 month old children will not imitate blindly what somebody does, but they will figure out by themselves what the other was actually trying to do, and the best fit of the means to the end. Here is how they did it: and experimenter is sitting at a table across from a child. Both of them have a box with a big ‘button’ in front of them. For some children the experimenter leans forward, touches the button with her head and a light turns on inside the box. These children just do the same thing: they lean forward and touch the button with their head. This is a classic result (first demonstrated in a 1988 paper by Andrew Melztoff) from which it is tempting to conclude that the babies are blind imitators. But are they really?

This is where Gergely’s experiment is beautiful: for some other kids the experimenter did something slightly different. Before touching the button with her head, she pretended to be cold, grabbed a blanket and rolled herself in it, so that her arms where inside the blanket and her hands were holding it. When she touched the button with her head, the children did not imitate her movements: they did it with their hands. They must have thought that the only reason she was pushing the button with her head was that her hands were not free. So when they realized that the box could be lit, they did it with the simplest possible mean: with their hands. Conversely, the other children who were facing an experimenter with her hands free hitting the button with her head must have thought that there were a reason to use such a strange mean to light the box, and, quite appropriately, they replicated this strange mean.

There are tons of such experiments showing how socially savvy infants, babies and children are, but let me just end this post with my contender for the Cutest Science Paper Award. It is a study published in Science earlier this year (editor's note: 2006) that shows that babies are not only smart: they can be nice too. Mike Tomasello and his team demonstrated that 18 month old children will spontaneously help someone who is facing a difficulty. An experimenter has dropped something and can not reach it, he needs a door to be opened or he seems to be unable to place an object on top of a stack: the children will help this big clumsy grown-up! Look at the (freely accessible) movies online, and vote it the Cutest Science Paper!

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