Thursday, January 06, 2011

Davie Yoon - Do Infants Possess a Social Sense (Encoding others beliefs)?

This is an interesting research review from Davie Yoon's blog at the International Cognition and Culture Institute. There have been several studies now that examine how infants are quite capable of making sense of their environment - including forming a cognitive sense their primary caregivers - and this one seems to add to that material.

The study (full text is not available without subscription):

The Social Sense: Susceptibility to Others’ Beliefs in Human Infants and Adults


Human social interactions crucially depend on the ability to represent other agents’ beliefs even when these contradict our own beliefs, leading to the potentially complex problem of simultaneously holding two conflicting representations in mind. Here, we show that adults and 7-month-olds automatically encode others’ beliefs, and that, surprisingly, others’ beliefs have similar effects as the participants’ own beliefs. In a visual object detection task, participants’ beliefs and the beliefs of an agent (whose beliefs were irrelevant to performing the task) both modulated adults’ reaction times and infants’ looking times. Moreover, the agent’s beliefs influenced participants’ behavior even after the agent had left the scene, suggesting that participants computed the agent’s beliefs online and sustained them, possibly for future predictions about the agent’s behavior. Hence, the mere presence of an agent automatically triggers powerful processes of belief computation that may be part of a “social sense” crucial to human societies.

Full Citation:
Kovács, A.M., Téglás, E. & Endress, A.D. (2010, Dec. 24). The Social Sense: Susceptibility to Others' Beliefs in Human Infants and Adults. Science, Vol. 330 no. 6012: pp. 1830-1834. DOI: 10.1126/science.1190792
Yoon asks some good questions about the study. Are these skills innate (I suspect they are, a way to enhance survival chances)? Is this human-specific or does it reflect other primates or other mammals?
The Smurf Studies: Do 7-month-olds have a "social sense"?
Davie Yoon's blog
Written by Davie Yoon
Sunday, 02 January 2011

In a recent paper published in Science (24 December 2010) and entitled "The Social Sense: Susceptibility to Others' Beliefs in Human Infants and Adults", Agnes Kovacs, Ernő Téglás and Ansgar Denis Endress describe a striking set of experiments that may be of interest to ICCI readers, and suggest that "adults and 7-month-olds automatically encode others' beliefs, and that, surprisingly, others' beliefs have similar effects as the participants' own beliefs." These studies add to a growing empirical literature that started with Onishi & Baillargeon 2005 and that stands in contrast to Sally-Ann-style studies of false belief (which rely on explicit predictions and suggest it is not until 4 or 5 years that children can represent others' false beliefs). Here, the authors argue that representing an agent's beliefs -- even when they contradict one's own beliefs, and even when that agent has left the scene -- is triggered automatically and may be part of an innate human "social sense."

Around the Department of Cognitive Science at the CEU in Budapest, these are known as the "smurf studies", because they all feature a movie with different smurf dolls and a ball that rolls behind an occluder (Figure 1).

Kovacs et al, Figure 1

The main measure for adults is reaction time after the occluder is removed to detect whether a ball is present or absent. Adults are faster to detect the presence of a ball behind the occluder if they and the smurf both know that the ball should be there (true belief) AND are similarly quick even if they know the ball shouldn't be there, but the smurf would think it is there (false belief). To get at the question of whether this sort of automatic agent-belief representation is present early in life and thus possibly innate or at the very least pre-verbal, they tested 7 month olds in a looking time version of the adult experiments. Here they measure looking time to the "no ball" outcome, as an index of how surprised the infant is that the ball isn't there. The infant looks longer if the ball should have been there and is gone vs. the ball shouldn't be there, and it's gone (true belief). They ALSO look longer if they knew the ball shouldn't be there, but the smurf would think it IS there (false belief)! Hence both adults and infants are influenced in their expectations not only by their own beliefs but also by that of another agent, even if the agents beliefs are in contradiction with their own!

Aside from the relevancy of these results for theory of mind and social cognitive developmental research -- these studies also raise questions about the nature of mental representation and memory across delay. It's also a very meaty paper. There is a lot of data and a lot of ideas and hypotheses to sink our teeth into.

As Gyorgi would say, three cheers to Kovacs and colleagues for this exciting contribution to the social cognition literature. I only hope that they and others in the field will next address the crucial question of how it all happens!

Further questions - Davie Yoon

How human-specific is the phenomenon described in this paper? What about other primates, or human-domesticated species, or other non-human-domesticated yet socially-complex species?

Is the capacity for such mental representation innate? Will we find the same pattern of behavior in newborn infants? What about dark-reared or otherwise visually naive animals?

Does an individual's aptitude with this class of mental representations have important consequences for other aspects of that individual's social life? For example, would the quality of these representations predict an individual's language learning trajectory, risk for social communicative disorders like autism, etc?

How are neural representations for unseen objects that do and do not match reality stored differently? How about one's own versus another's representation of such objects?

Are the behavioral effects described in the paper consistent with an advantage or interference effect? This would require comparing the current results with measures of adult RT and infant looking time to a baseline event in which no information about the presence of absence of the ball is provided prior to the inclusion event.

Apologies to the authors if I have missed discussion of these issues that appear already in the manuscript or supplementary materials.

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