How Children Think About the Mind

One powerful way children learn is by attending to and interacting with people around them. Humans are social creatures, and babies and toddlers are especially attuned to social cues, such as their parents’ facial expressions and where their parents are looking. However, when it comes to learning about the internal social aspects of people, like their beliefs, desires and thoughts, young children often struggle to realize that other people may think differently than they do.

In psychology, “Theory of Mind” is a term used to describe the understanding of one’s own or others’ mind and how it influences behavior. Many scientists have focused their research on studying when babies and toddlers understand that people have cognitions, like thoughts and desires, and when they understand that those cognitions influence behavior. For example, in one study, 14-month-olds hear an adult express how much she likes broccoli and that she doesn’t like Goldfish crackers, but when given the option to give some food to the adult, the infant chooses to give what she herself wants (crackers) rather than what the adult wants (broccoli). The researchers suggest that it’s not until after 18-months of age that infants understand that someone may have different preferences than they do. This is probably why toddlers often give people gifts that they themselves like (like a stuffed animal or a favorite blanket), even though an adult would not necessarily like it.

Young children also don’t fully understand that adults have different beliefs than them, and that people can also hold incorrect beliefs. In one popular study, 3-year-olds are shown a Crayon box and are asked, “What do you think is inside this box?” Of course, children respond that Crayons are in the box. Then, the experimenter shows them that the box actually contains stickers or something else that is unexpected. The experimenter than asks the child two questions to measure their theory of mind: “What did you think was in the box when I asked you before?” and “If we ask your friend what’s in the box, what would he/she say?”

Surprisingly, children younger than 4-years-old typically answer both questions based on their current beliefs. They answer that they previous thought stickers were in the box, and that their friend would also think stickers are in the box. Importantly, these 3-year-olds are not lying. Instead, they struggle to understand that people may have false beliefs about the interior of the Crayon box, including that they themselves could have previously had a false belief. These children assume that other people hold the same beliefs as themselves.

 Learning about the mind – both one’s own and others – is not an easy task. It’s important to remember that we adults have learned with time how to take someone’s perspective or entertain someone’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it. For young children, the first step in understanding how other people think is recognizing that people do not prefer the same things as you, or even hold the same beliefs as you.

Don’t be surprised if your toddler gives you a not-so-thoughtful gift; they’re just assuming you’ll like their toys too!

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What Do Babies Like?

We develop many of our preferences with experience. A cat may have scratched you when you were a child, and therefore you prefer not to be left alone with cats. However, babies come into this world already having many likes and dislikes. Some preferences are hard-wired and help babies attend to – and learn from – their environment.

First, babies love human faces. Even newborns prefer human faces to other interesting objects such as toys. For example, studies show that babies prefer to look at human faces compared to scrambled or upside down human faces. This preference for human faces is important because attending to human faces is necessary for babies to then recognize familiar faces (like their mother) and make associations between faces and sounds (like speech). Interestingly, research shows that babies prefer attractive faces compared to less attractive faces. The researchers asked adults rate faces on attractiveness; then they showed infants composites of attractive and unattractive faces. The infants preferred to look at the attractive faces, perhaps because attractive faces are more closely aligned with stereotypical faces, which babies have evolved to recognize.

Babies also love novelty. In fact, researchers have relied on babies’ preference for new things as a way of measuring what babies know and don’t know. For example, one way of testing whether infants understand the physical properties of objects (like whether a box resting on the edge of a table should fall over), is to show infants just that and measure where they look. For example, one study showed infants a box falling off the edge of a table, as well as the box sitting impossibly on the edge of the table. If the infant looked longer at the box sitting impossibly on the edge, it would indicate that the infant see something “new” or different about that box, and therefore that they detect that something is not normal. Babies’ preference for novelty helps them attend to new things in their environment and therefore can provide opportunities for learning.

Finally, babies also prefer to listen to their native language over a foreign language — even at birth. One study had two-day old infants listen to an audio track of their native language (English) and a foreign language (Spanish). Infants could control which audio track played by changing the rate of their sucking. The researchers found that the infants activated the audio track that played their native language more than the foreign language. Interestingly, research suggests newborn infants can also detect the difference between their native language and a foreign language, suggesting that infants are picking up on the intonation and sounds of their mother’s speech before they are even born. More so, babies prefer and learn more from infant-directed speech (i.e., baby talk) compared to adult-directed speech due to the high intonation, dramatized facial expressions and positive emotions that go along with it.

So what do babies like? Babies like human faces, novelty and their native language, which is exactly why babies love games and interactions like peek-a-boo so much. Not only do they get to see a human face and hear infant-directed speech, but covering the face helps the infants to somewhat forget what the adult looks like, while re-exposing it makes the face like new to them. Next time you want to entertain an infant, make sure you give them your best peek-a-boo face!