Children understand far more about other minds than long believed

Don't underestimate what I get about the world around me. Baby picture via www.shutterstock.com.
Until a few decades ago, scientists believed that young children knew very little, if anything, about what others were thinking. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who is credited with starting a scientific study into children's thinking, believed that preschoolers cannot take into account what is going on in the minds of others.
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The interviews and experiments he conducted with children in the mid-20th century suggested that they were trapped in their subjective viewpoints and unable to imagine what others were thinking, feeling, or believing. To him, young children did not seem to know that different people might have different views or perspectives of the world, or that even their own perspectives change over time.
Much of the subsequent research on early childhood thinking was heavily influenced by Piaget's ideas. Scientists tried to refine his theory and empirically confirm his views. But it became increasingly clear that Piaget was missing something. He seemed to have greatly underestimated the intellectual powers of very young children - before they could make themselves understood through language or even deliberate action. Researchers began to come up with increasingly sophisticated methods of figuring out what was going on in babies' minds, and the resulting picture of their abilities is becoming more and more nuanced.
As a result, the old view of the self-centered nature and intellectual weaknesses of children has increasingly fallen out of favor and has been replaced by a more generous position that sees a nascent sense not only of the physical world but of other minds, even among the "youngest boys ". ”
Dark Age of Intellectual Development?
Historically, children did not receive much respect for their mental powers. Piaget not only believed that children were "self-centered" because they were unable to distinguish between their own point of view and that of others. He also believed that their thinking was marked by systematic errors and confusion.
For example, the children he interviewed seemed unable to separate causes from effects ("Does the wind move the branches or do the moving branches cause the wind?") And could not distinguish reality from superficial phenomena (A stick plunged halfway into the water looks but is not bent). They also fall prey to magical and mythical thinking: a child might believe that the sun was once a ball that someone threw into the sky, where it grew bigger and bigger. In fact, Piaget believed that children's intellectual development progressed in the same way that historians believe that human thought progressed over historical time: from mythical to logical thinking.
Piaget firmly believed that children were totally focused on their own actions and perceptions. When they play with others, they don't cooperate because they don't realize that there are different roles and perspectives. He was convinced that children literally cannot “work together”: instead of playing cooperatively and genuinely together, they play side by side, regardless of the other. And when a young child speaks to others, it is said that they cannot take the listener's point of view into account, but rather "speak to themselves without listening to others".
Piaget and his followers claimed that children go through something of a dark age of intellectual development before slowly and gradually becoming enlightened by reason and rationality when they reach school age. Alongside this enlightenment, there is a growing understanding of other people, including their attitudes and views of the world.
Change of mindset
Today the picture of the intellectual development of children is completely different. Psychologists are constantly uncovering new insights into the depths of young children's knowledge of the world, including their understanding of other minds. Recent studies suggest that even infants are sensitive to the perspectives and beliefs of others.
Part of the motivation to revise some of Piaget's conclusions resulted from an ideological shift about the origins of human knowledge that occurred in the second half of the 20th century. It has become increasingly unpopular to assume that a basic understanding of the world can be built entirely from experience.
This was in part instigated by the theorist Noam Chomsky, who argued that something as complex as the rules of grammar cannot be picked up from exposure to language but is provided by an innate "language faculty". Others followed this example and defined further “core areas” in which knowledge supposedly cannot be put together from experience, but must be innate. One such area is our knowledge of the thoughts of others. Some even argue that a basic knowledge of the thoughts of others is not only possessed by human infants, but must also be evolutionarily old and, therefore, must be shared by our closest living relatives, the great apes.
Ingenious new investigation tools
To prove that infants know more than is recognized in this area, researchers had to find innovative ways to show it. A big part of why we are now realizing so much more of children's intellectual abilities is the development of much more sensitive research tools than Piaget had at his disposal.
Instead of engaging toddlers in a dialogue or letting them perform complex motor tasks, the newer methods use behaviors that have a permanent place in the natural behavior repertoire of infants: looking, listening, sucking, facial expressions, gestures and simple manual actions. The idea of ​​focusing on these "little behaviors" is to give children the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge implicitly and spontaneously - without having to answer questions or instructions. For example, children can look longer at an event that they were not expecting or show facial expressions that indicate that they have empathy with another.
When researchers measure these less demanding and often involuntary behaviors, they can establish a sensitivity to the mental states of others at a much younger age than the more sophisticated methods Piaget and his students used.
What modern studies show
In the 1980s, such implicit measures became common in developmental psychology. However, it took a while before these instruments were used to measure children's understanding of the spiritual life of others. Recent studies have shown that even infants and toddlers are sensitive to what is going on in the minds of others.
In a series of experiments, a group of Hungarian scientists had six-month-old babies watch an animation of the following sequence of events: A Smurf watched a ball roll behind a screen. The Smurf then left. In his absence, the infants watched the ball come out from behind the screen and roll away. The Smurf returned and the screen was lowered, showing that the ball was no longer there. The study's authors recorded how the children looked and found that they fixed themselves longer than usual on the final scene of the Smurf looking at the empty space behind the barrier - as if they understood that the Smurf's expectation was injured.
In another set of experiments, my colleagues at the University of Southern California and I found evidence that toddlers can even predict how others will feel when their expectations are disappointed. We performed several puppet shows for two year old children. In these puppet shows, a protagonist (Cookie Monster) left his precious belongings (Cookies) on the stage and later returned to fetch them. What the protagonist didn't know was that an antagonist had come and played around with his property. The children had witnessed these acts and carefully watched the protagonist's return.
We recorded children's facial and body expressions. Children bit their lips, wrinkled their noses, or wiggled their chairs when the protagonist returned, as if awaiting the confusion and disappointment he was going to experience. It is important that children did not show such reactions and remained calm when the protagonist had seen the events himself and thus knew what to expect. Our study shows that by the tender age of two, children aren't just pursuing what others believe or expect. You can even predict how others will feel when they discover reality.
Studies like this show that much more is going on in the minds of toddlers and even infants than was previously thought. With the explicit measures of Piaget and his successors, these deeper levels of child understanding cannot be accessed. The new investigative tools show that kids know more than they can say: when we scratch beneath the surface, we find a young understanding of relationships and perspectives that Piaget probably never dreamed of.
Old ways are also valuable
Despite these apparent advances in studying the thinking of young children, it would be a grave mistake to discard the careful and systematic analyzes produced by Piaget and others before the new tests dominated the scene. It would be like throwing the baby away with the bath water, because the original methods revealed essential facts about how children think - facts that the new, “minimalist” methods cannot reveal.
In today's community there is no consensus on how much we can infer from a look, a grimace, or a gesture. These behaviors clearly show a curiosity about what's going on inside the minds of others, and likely a series of early intuitions coupled with a willingness to learn more. They pave the way to richer and more explicit forms of understanding other people's thoughts. However, they cannot in any way replace the child's growing ability to articulate and refine their understanding of how people behave and why.
Piaget may have underestimated the cognitive abilities of infants, possibly due to a lack of modern tools. But their insights into how a child gradually grasps the world around them and understands that they are a person in a community of other people remain as inspiring as they were 50 years ago. The challenge for us development scientists today is to integrate the new with the old and to understand how the sensitivity of infants to other minds gradually evolves into a comprehensive understanding of other people who are different from themselves and yet similar to them.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
Continue reading:
Can great apes read your mind?
Small children can hide terribly - psychologists have a new theory as to why
Why are so many of our pets overweight?
Henrike Moll receives funding from the Office of Naval Research.
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Jean Piaget

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