European Commission logo
English English
CORDIS - EU research results

Tracking and evaluating social relations and potential partners in infancy

Periodic Reporting for period 5 - PARTNERS (Tracking and evaluating social relations and potential partners in infancy)

Reporting period: 2023-03-01 to 2023-12-31

In order to navigate the social world, children must understand how social interactions unfold and what kinds of social relations exist in their society. In this project, we studied whether human infants and young children are able to infer the social relations that underlie observed social interactions by assuming that the costs and benefits that these interactions produce to each party reflect the nature of their relation. We aimed to establish whether drawing inferences to social relations enjoys the priority in the infant mind over attribution of social dispositions, in other words, whether babies explain social interactions by the traits of the participating individuals or by their long-term relations. We also asked whether and how children use these inferences for tracking people across contexts and for choosing social partners for themselves, how early our biases to blame or praise others for their actions develop, and how much of that depends on social learning.
We performed over 60 studies with babies, children, and adults to assess how they interpret interactions they observe among others. We found that even 1-year-olds understand when actors cooperate to achieve a common goal, when a group of individuals follow a leader, and when people exchange goods. In particular, babies are very much interested when someone gives an object to someone else, and even think that an accidental transfer of objects might have been intentional. Adults also remember better what happened when they see giving actions than when they see other interactions. However, and contrary to what had been thought before, we have found that babies and toddlers do not fully understand helping actions – they probably see them as as people acting together rather than one person is acting for the benefit of another. By 3 to 4 years of age, they recognize helping behaviour but still do not think that such actions reflect the internal traits (such as helpfullness, unselfishness) of the people who perform them. Rather, they think that such actions, just like acts of giving, are to be explained by the social relation between the parties.

These findings are important in light of the common idea that babies and young children choose their friends on the basis of the traits they attribute to others. We investigated this assumption directly by an iPad game we developed for this purpose. While adults and school-age children behaved the way the commonsense view expect them to do (they chose fast and benevolent partners for themselves), younger children did not, despite the fact that they also recognized who was fast and who helped. Such findings indicate that young children are less judgmental than adults about others and that the attribution of character traits on the basis of observation requires extensive socialization and/or formal schooling.
Common views in developmental psychology on how infants understand social relations and how they use such understanding in navigating the social world had been based either on the researchers’ intuitions or on the assumption that the development in this domain originates from moral evaluation of others. Our results challenged these views and offered an alternative: what infants learn from observed social interactions is the social relations between actors rather than their personal traits. This conclusion should change how psychologists think about the development of social cognition.

In terms of research methods, we have shown that social cognition in children can be studied without exposing them to verbal instructions and questions, which could bias their answers towards confirming the investigators’ assumptions.
The starting screen of the iPad game developed for the project.