We are interested in how children and adults reason about the nonverbal and verbal behaviors of other individuals. Currently our research projects fall into four general areas:
False-belief understanding in infants and toddlers
Adults routinely interpret the behavior of other individuals in terms of their underlying mental states (e.g., goals, preferences, beliefs). Much of the research on the development of this psychological reasoning ability has focused on when children understand that others can be mistaken, or hold false beliefs, about the world. This question was traditionally studied using tasks in which children had to answer direct questions about the likely behavior of a mistaken individual. Children typically fail such tasks until at least age four. However, more recent research (some of which has been conducted in our laboratory) suggests that when tested with alternative tasks that do not involve such questions, children demonstrate false-belief understanding at much younger ages – in some cases as early as 6 months of age. Our ongoing research builds on these recent findings by exploring two questions. First, what is the extent of infants’ and toddlers’ early false-belief understanding? Second, what explains the discrepancy between children’s performance on traditional false-belief tasks and alternative tasks?
The role of social factors in false-belief understanding
A large body of research suggests that social factors predict preschooler’s false-belief performance. For instance, children’s exposure to and use of mental-state language—terms that refer to psychological states such as think and know—is related to their false-belief understanding during the preschool years. However, little research has investigated whether similar factors might contribute to false-belief understanding prior to and after the preschool years. In ongoing work we are examining the role of several social factors in relation to false-belief understanding both during the first years of life and in adulthood. We hypothesize that these social experiences contribute to false-belief understanding across the lifespan.
The origins of social-group based inferences
Categorization is a vital process in human cognition. Categories not only allow us to organize our knowledge about the world efficiently, but they also guide our expectations when we encounter new information. We tend to assume that categories capture fundamental, inherent similarities amongst entities and thus use prior knowledge about a category to make inferences about the likely properties of new category members. However, applying this type of reasoning to categories of people (e.g., women) can have a pernicious effect, giving rise to stereotypes and prejudice. By the preschool years, children are attentive to social groups in their environments and use social groups to make inductive inferences about group members. Our research investigates the origins of stereotypes by examining when and how infants begin to make social-group based inferences about the characteristics and behaviors of people.
Cross-situational word learning
When children encounter a new word, the accompanying referential scene is likely to contain many potential meanings. One way that learners might cope with this ambiguity is by considering additional contexts in which the word occurs: across occurrences, scene elements that are irrelevant to the word’s meaning should occur less consistently than those that are central to its meaning. Recent evidence suggests that both children and adults possess a basic mechanism for exploiting this type of cross-situational information in word learning. However, considerable questions remain regarding the nature of this learning process. Currently we are exploring several such questions. First, to what extent does children’s cross-situational learning scale up in challenging learning conditions? Second, could other information sources, such as social cues, support children’s use of cross-situational information? Third, how much information do learners retain about the potential referents that occur with a word on a given observation? Together these projects will serve to clarify the nature of the cross-situational word learning mechanism and its role in everyday language acquisition.