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Babies Know When You Want Something Badly, Study Shows

by Lisa René LeClair

Photograph by Twenty20

It's often easy to tell what motivates a person, especially those who are driven to succeed. But at what age do these observational abilities kick in: 21, 30, 65? According to a new study, it starts when we are babies.

Researchers from MIT and Harvard University say that babies as young as 10 months old can determine a person's values and intent by observing how hard they are willing to work to achieve it.

“Infants are far from experiencing the world as a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion,’” says lead author Shari Liu, referring to a description by philosopher and psychologist William James about a baby’s first experience of the world. “They interpret people's actions in terms of hidden variables, including the effort [people] expend in producing those actions, and also the value of the goals those actions achieve."

Does this mean that our soon-to-be toddlers know the difference between "adding an item to the shopping cart" and taking the extra step of "proceeding to checkout"? Probably not, but they do know there is something on that flat screen we want, and scientists were curious as to how and when they figured it out.

To answer that question, researchers showed 10-month-old infants animated videos in which an “agent"—a cartoon character shaped like a bouncing ball—tries to reach a goal (meeting another cartoon character). In one of the videos, the agent has to leap over walls of varying height to reach the goal. First, the babies saw the agent jump over a low wall and then refuse to jump over a medium-height wall. Next, the agent jumped over the medium-height wall to reach a different goal, but refused to jump over a high wall to reach that goal.

The babies were then shown a scene in which the agent could choose between the two goals, with no obstacles in the way. An adult or older child would assume the agent would choose the second goal (because the agent had worked harder to reach that goal in the video seen earlier), but when the agent chose the more easily attained goal, researchers found that 10-month-olds also thought the agent would choose the second goal.

When the agent was shown choosing the first goal, infants looked at the scene longer, indicating that they were surprised by that outcome.

“Across our experiments, we found that babies looked longer when the agent chose the thing it had exerted less effort for, showing that they infer the amount of value that agents place on goals from the amount of effort that they take toward these goals,” Liu says.

The study shows that “preverbal infants can look at the world like economists,” says Gergely Csibra, a professor of cognitive science at Central European University in Hungary. In other words, they apply the well-known logic that all of us rely on when we try to assess someone’s preferences: The harder she tries to achieve something, the more valuable the expected reward is to her when she succeeds.”

When that doesn't happen, babies as young as 10 months old are just as surprised as we are.

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