Babies can tell how badly you want something
Science & Tech / /
Ten-month-old babies are able to determine the value of a goal by observing how hard someone is working on achieving it.
According to a new study from MIT and Harvard University.
This ability requires consolidation of information about both the costs for reaching the goal and the benefit gained, which suggest that babies very early acquire an intuition about decision making.
“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 commenting 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."
“This study is an important step in trying to understand the roots of common-sense understanding of other people’s actions. It shows quite strikingly that in some sense, the basic math that is at the heart of how economists think about rational choice is very intuitive to babies who don’t know math, don’t speak, and can barely understand a few words,” says Josh Tenenbaum, a professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
Conclusions of previous research was mainly based on showing that older children and adults can recognize someone’s motivations by observing how much effort that person puts in obtaining a goal. Furthermore, the MIT team wanted to study this ability in more detailed.
Previous studies have suggested that babies expect people to be to be efficient in how they achieve their goals and to be consistent in their preferences. Deepening the study the question posed in the present study was whether babies can combine what they know about a person’s goal and the effort required to obtain it.
To answer this, the researchers showed 10-month-old babies animated videos in which a cartoon character, tries to reach another cartoon character. In one of the videos, the caracter has to leap over walls of varying height to reach the goal. First, the babies saw the character jump over a low wall and then refuse to jump over a medium wall. Next, the agent jumped over the medium wall to reach a different goal, but refused to jump over a high wall to reach the same goal.
The babies were then shown a scene in which the cartoon character was able to choose between the two goals, without obstacles in the way. An adult or older child, from the previous study, would assume the character would choose the second goal, because in the previous video it worked harder to achieve it. Surprisingly, the researchers found that 10-month-olds also reached this conclusion. When the character was shown choosing the first goal, infants looked at the scene longer, representing their surprise 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, for the first time, that “preverbal infants can look at the world like economists,” says Gergely Csibra, a professor of cognitive science at Central European University in Hungary. “They do not simply calculate the costs and benefits of others’ actions, but relate these terms onto each other. 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 is the expected reward to her when she succeeds.”