What have we found out so far?

 Infants focus their attention on what other people look at.

Erwachsener liest Kind aus Bilderbuch vor

When babies are born, they are facing with an incredible influx of new sensory inputs. They first have to organize these impressions in order to find their way in their surroundings. But in what way do infants direct their attention to select the relevant cues from their environment? How do they know what is important?

So far, in our studies we have been able to show that infants follow other peoples' gaze at objects in their surroundings as early as the age of 4 months. Thereby, their attention is being focused precisely on objects that other humans are looking at. Like this, babies are better able to remember these objects rather than other objects that happened to be nearby. Therefore, social attention can help infants to focus on relevant things and specifically remember them.

Using eye movement measurements, we investigate how babies' attention can be most effectively directed to objects and events in their environment. We are particularly interested in the mechanisms and developmental processes that lead babies to pay special attention to social cues, such as the eyes or gaze direction of other people.


 Eye contact increases infants' attention.

Frau mit Kind am Schoß

Eye contact is a powerful social cue in human communication. When somebody is looking us into the eyes, we feel addressed and spoken to. And what about babies?

In one of our studies, 9-month-old infants looked at toys on a computer screen together with one of the experimenters. The brain activity of the children was recorded using electroencephalography (EEG). The experimenter either made eye contact with the child before the toy appeared on the screen, or she looked at the screen all the time and did not respond to the child at all. Although in both cases the baby and the adult looked at the toys at the same time, only previous eye contact resulted in a real shared looking through the mutual referencing. In fact, this joint gaze between the child and the adult made a big difference: babies reacted with significantly increased attention and brain activity to the toys they looked at together with the investigator after eye contact. And so already in this early age, eye contact seems to have a considerable effect!

We now investigate social learning during the dynamic and natural interaction between children and adults. We specifically look at what exactly in these interactions would help children learn something from the adult in, for example a new word. Again, is eye-contact the crucial factor in this case, or  is it rather significant that the adult always reacts promptly to the child? Is it important that the children are familiar with the adult, or do they also learn from a previously unknown experimenter?


 Children also imitate seemingly irrelevant actions.

Bildsequenz zum Öffnen einer Box mit für die Lösung irrelevanten Handlungsabläufen

Children learn a lot from other people through imitation, i.e. they simply imitate the actions they see. The advantage of learning through imitation is that children can also learn actions which they do not yet understand the exact function of. Interestingly, however, children also imitate actions that are obviously not useful or necessery for achieving a given goal.

In one of our studies, 5-year-old children watched an adult experimenter take a small reward out of a transparent container. The experimenter did not only carry out the relevant steps but also those that obviously did not make sense. For example, she clapped her hands and pressed a functionless button on the side of the box. Children imitated surprisingly many of these functionless actions, even when they felt unobserved and when the experimenter had not communicated directly with them. This finding shows that children observe other peoples' actions very attentively and imitate them, even if the actions do not make any immediate sense. This could be because children learn from other people not only how things work, but also how to follow social norms and rules. These norms often have no direct function (i.e. shaking hands as a greeting), but are of great social significance.

In one of our present studies, we want to find out whether group membership has an influence on what actions children imitate. Are children more likely to imitate actions of people who belong to their "team" in order to feel like a part of the group?

Our results

References

Bushnell, I. W. R., Sai, F., & Mullin, J. T. (1989). Neonatal recognition of the mother’s face. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7, 3-15.

Carpenter, M., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2005). Twelve- and 18-month-olds copy actions in terms of goals. Dev Sci, 8(1), F13-20. doi:DESC385 [pii]10.1111/j.1467-7687.2004.00385.x

Gredeback, G., Fikke, L., & Melinder, A. (2010). The development of joint visual attention: a longitudinal study of gaze following during interactions with mothers and strangers. Developmental Science, 13(6), 839-848. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00945.x

Johnson, M. H., Dziurawiec, S., Ellis, H., & Morton, J. (1991). Newborns' preferential tracking of face-like stimuli and its subsequent decline. Cognition, 40(1-2), 1-19. doi:0010-0277(91)90045-6 [pii]

Pauen, S., Traeuble, B., Hoehl, S., & Bechtel, S. (2015). Show me the world. Object categorization and socially-guided object learning in infancy. Child Development Perspecties, 9, 111-116.

Rochat, P., & Striano, T. (1999). Social cognitive development in the first year. In P. Rochat (Ed.), Early social cognition (pp. 3-34). Hillsdale: Erlbaum.

Striano, T., & Reid, V. M. (2006). Social cognition in the first year. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(10), 471-476. doi:S1364-6613(06)00213-0 [pii]10.1016/j.tics.2006.08.006