- Study shows children as young as 18 months old can see the world from another’s perspective
- It was previously believed that this ability only emerges by the ages of four to seven
- Study also shows that the development of the ability occurs at the same time across cultures
By Damien Gayle
The Daily Mail
Infants as young as 18 months old can guess what other people are thinking, a new study claims.
A study of children from rural China, Ecuador and Fiji found that their ability to see the world from others’ perspectives emerges much earlier than previously thought.
It was previously thought that this ability to empathise only emerges in children between the ages of four and seven, but children from different countries develop it at different ages.
Researchers say their findings could also shed light could shed light on the social skills that differentiate humans from chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary relatives.
The team from the University of California, Los Angelese used a form of the false-belief test – which is one of the few cognitive tasks that youngsters can do that primates cannot.
In the classic version of the test, one person comes into a room and places an object like a pair of scissors into a hiding place. A second researcher then enters and puts the scissors in his pocket.
When the first person returns, researchers ask the child: ‘Where do you think the first person will look for the scissors.’
The task evaluates whether children have developed a theory of mind, which is an ability to understand the perspectives of other people – in this case that of the person who doesn’t know where his scissors have gone.
Children in Western countries usually start to give the correct answer – that the person will look in the original hiding place – by the ages of four to seven, but children in other countries give that answer at different ages.
But noting previous studies that showed children seemed to understand the concept earlier if researchers tracked youngsters’ eye movements rather than directly asking the question, the UCLA team decided to investigate whether cultural differences in dealing with adults could be obscuring the cognitive leap.
The researchers studied 91 children from three communities in China, Fiji and Ecuador aged from about 19 months to five years old with a live-action play that was similar to the classic false-belief test.
HOW AGGRESSION IS A NORMAL RESPONSE TO SEEING CUTE BABIES
Reaching out to pinch a infant on the cheeks may seem an incongruously aggressive response to the sight of such a vulnerable individual, but a new study claims it is actually normal.
Researchers in the U.S. found that people watching a slideshow of cute pictures popped more bubbles on a sheet of bubble wrap than those watching funny or neutral pictures.
The findings offer insight into the aggressive sounding exclamations people often give when they see things they regard as adorable, such as: ‘I want to eat you up!’
Rebecca Dyer, a graduate student in psychology at
Yale University who presented the study to the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, said she believes its ‘almost a sense of lost control’.
‘You know, you can’t stand it, you can’t handle it, that kind of thing,’ she told LiveScience.
The only difference in their version of the test was that as the other person came in to pocket the scissors, he paused, held his chin, and said: ‘Hmm, I wonder where they’ll look for the scissors.’
Video recordings of the children’s reactions to the play showed that the youngsters consistently looked at the hiding place, indicating that they expected the first man to search for the scissors where he had left them.
It was this understanding of what the first person believes and what he doesn’t know that the researchers said required the children to make sophisticated inferences about how others see the world.
The findings show that children develop this kind of mind-reading ability much earlier than was previously thought and also that it emerges at a similar time across disparate cultures.
That suggested that cultural differences had indeed affected previous research. This could be because in many societies parents don’t ask children apparently pointless rhetorical questions like ‘what is the cow doing’, when adults already know the answer.
Lead researcher H. Clark Barrett, an anthropologist at UCLA, told LiveScience that children in those cultures may be confused by such questions and might think ‘Why are you asking me? You should know it.’