You may think that babies experience the world as a bit of a blur, but a new study has shown that they have a clearer picture than you think.
The study found that babies as young as 10 months can assess how much someone values a particular goal.
The infants do this by observing how hard someone is willing to work to achieve their goal, according to the researchers.
You may think that babies experience the world as a bit of a blur, but a new study has shown that they have a clearer picture than you think. The study found that babies as young as 10 months can assess how much someone values a particular goal (stock image)
Researchers from MIT and Harvard University suggest that babies acquire an intuition about how people make decisions very early in life.
Shari Liu, lead author of the study, said: ‘Infants are far from experiencing the world as a blooming, buzzing confusion.
‘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.’
While previous studies have shown that adults and older children have an intuition about how people make decisions, the researchers wanted to learn about how and when this ability develops.
In the study, the researchers showed 10-month-old infants cartoons in which an ‘agent’ – a character shaped like a bouncing ball – tries to reach another character.
In one of the videos, the agent has to leap over walls of varying height to reach the goal.
First, the agent jumps over a low wall, but then refuses to jump over a medium wall.
Next, the agent jumps over the medium wall to reach a different goal, but then refuses to jump over a high wall to reach that goal.
The babies were then shown a scene where the agent could choose between the two goals, with no obstacles in the way.
An adult or older child would assume the agent would choose the second goal, because the agent had worked harder to reach that goal in the previous video.
The researchers found that 10-month-olds also reached this conclusion.
In the study, the researchers showed 10-month-old infants cartoons in which an ‘agent’ – a character shaped like a bouncing ball – tries to reach another character
When the agent was shown choosing the first goal, infants looked at the scene longer, indicating that they were surprised by that outcome.
Ms Liu said: ‘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.’
The findings suggest that babies are able to calculate how much another person values something based on how much effort they put into getting it.
Professor Josh Tenenbaum, co-author of the study, said: ‘This paper is not the first to suggest that idea, but its novelty is that it shows this is true in much younger babies than anyone has seen.
‘These are preverbal babies, who themselves are not actively doing very much, yet they appear to understand other people’s actions in this sophisticated, quantitative way.’
The study leaves several questions unanswered about how and when these abilities arise.
Dr Tomer Ullman, co-author of the study, added: ‘Do infants start with a completely blank slate, and somehow they’re able to build up this sophisticated machinery?
‘Or do they start with some rudimentary understanding of goals and beliefs, and then build up the sophisticated machinery? Or is it all just built in?’