Publications of Hernik, M.

Minimal cues of possession transfer compel infants to ascribe the goal of giving

Human infants’ readiness to interpret impoverished object-transfer events as acts of giving suggests the existence of a dedicated action schema for identifying interactions based on active object transfer. Here we investigated the sensitivity of this giving schema by testing whether 15-month-olds would interpret the displacement of an object as an agent’s goal even if it could be dismissed as side effect of a different goal. Across two looking-time experiments, we showed that, when the displacement only resulted in a change of object location, infants expected the agent to pursue the other goal. However, when the same change of location resulted in a transfer of object possession, infants reliably adopted this outcome as the agent’s goal. The interpretive shift that the mere presence of a potential recipient induced is testament to the infants’ susceptibility to cues of benefit delivery: an action efficiently causing a transfer of object possession appeared sufficient to induce the interpretation of goal-directed giving even if the transfer was carried out without any interaction between Giver and Givee and was embedded in an event affording an alternative goal interpretation.

Statistical treatment of looking-time data

Looking times (LTs) are frequently measured in empirical research on infant cognition. We analyzed the statistical distribution of LTs across participants in order to develop recommendations for their treatment in infancy research. Our analyses focused on a common within-subject experimental design, in which longer looking to novel or unexpected stimuli is predicted. We analyzed data from two sources: an in-house set of LTs that included data from individual participants (47 experiments, 1584 observations), and a representative set of published papers reporting group-level LT statistics (149 experiments from 33 papers). We established that LTs are log-normally distributed across participants, and therefore should always be log-transformed before parametric statistical analyses. We estimated the typical size of significant effects in LT studies, which allowed us to make recommendations about setting sample sizes. We show how our estimate of the distribution of effect sizes of LT studies can be used to design experiments to be analyzed by Bayesian statistics, where the experimenter is required to determine in advance the predicted effect size rather than the sample size. We demonstrate the robustness of this method in both sets of LT experiments.

Infants learn enduring functions of novel tools from action demonstrations

According to recent theoretical proposals, one function of infant goal attribution is to support early social learning of artifact functions from instrumental actions, and one function of infant sensitivity to communication is to support early acquisition of generic knowledge about enduring, kind-relevant properties of the referents. The present study tested two hypotheses, derived from these proposals, about the conditions that facilitate the acquisition of enduring functions for novel tools in human infancy. Using a violation-of-expectation paradigm, we show that 13.5-months-old infants encode arbitrary end-states of action-sequences in relation to the novel tools employed to bring them about. These mappings are not formed if the same end states of action sequences cannot be interpreted as action goals. Moreover, the tool-goal mappings acquired from infant-directed communicative demonstrations are more resilient to counter-evidence than those acquired from non-infant-directed presentations, and thus show similarities to generic rather than episodic representations. These findings suggest that the acquisition of tool functions in infancy is guided by both teleological action interpretation mechanisms and the expectation that communicative demonstrations reveal enduring dispositional properties of tools.

Action anticipation in human infants reveals assumptions about anteroposterior body-structure and action

Animal actions are almost universally constrained by the bilateral body-plan. For example, the direction of travel tends to be constrained by the orientation of the animal’s anteroposterior axis. Hence, an animal’s behaviour can reliably guide the identification of its front and back, and its orientation can reliably guide action prediction. We examine the hypothesis that the evolutionarily ancient relation between anteroposterior body-structure and behaviour guides our cognitive processing of agents and their actions. In a series of studies we demonstrate that, after limited exposure, human infants as young as 6 months of age spontaneously encode a novel agent as having a certain axial direction with respect to its actions, and rely on it when anticipating the agent’s further behaviour. We found that such encoding is restricted to objects exhibiting cues of agency, and does not depend on generalization from features of familiar animals. Our research offers a new tool for investigating the perception of animate agency and supports the proposal that the underlying cognitive mechanisms have been shaped by basic biological adaptations in humans.

Nine-months-old infants do not need to know what the agent prefers in order to reason about its goals: on the role of preference and persistence in infants’ goal-attribution

Human infants readily interpret others’ actions as goal-directed and their understanding of previous goals shapes their expectations about an agent’s future goal-directed behavior in a changed situation. According to a recent proposal (Luo & Baillargeon, 2005), infants’ goal-attributions are not sufficient to support such expectations if the situational change involves broadening the set of choice-options available to the agent, and the agent’s preferences among this broadened set are not known. The present study falsifies this claim by showing that 9-month-olds expect the agent to continue acting towards the previous goal even if additional choice-options become available for which there is no preference-related evidence. We conclude that infants do not need to know about the agent’s preferences in order to form expectations about its goal-directed actions. Implications for the role of action persistency and action selectivity are discussed.

Can multiple bootstrapping provide means of very early conceptual development

Carey focuses her theory on initial knowledge and Quinian bootstrapping. We reflect on developmental mechanisms, which can operate in between. Whereas most of the research aims at delimitating early cognitive mechanisms, we point at the need for studying their integration and mutual bootstrapping. We illustrate this call by referring to a current debate on infants’ use of featural representations.

Functional understanding facilitates learning about tools in human children

Human children benefit from a possibly unique set of adaptations facilitating the acquisition of knowledge about material culture. They represent artifacts (man-made objects) as tools with specific functions and seek for functional information about novel objects. Even young infants pay attention to functionally relevant features of objects, and learn tool use and infer tool functions from others’ goal-directed actions and demonstrations. Children tend to imitate causally irrelevant elements of tool use demonstrations, which helps them to acquire means actions even before they fully understand their causal role in bringing about the desired goal. Although non-human animals use and make tools, and recognize causally relevant features of objects in a given task, they - unlike human children - do not appear to form enduring functional representations of tools as being for achieving particular goals when they are not in use.

There must be more to development of mindreading and metacognition than passing false belief tasks

We argue that while it is a valuable contribution, Carruthers’ model may be too restrictive to elaborate our understanding of the development of mindreading and metacognition, or to enrich our knowledge of individual differences and psychopathology. To illustrate, we describe pertinent examples where there may be a critical interplay between primitive social-cognitive processes and emerging self-attributions.