Young Kids Flexibly Use Context and Past Events to Make Social Decisions, CEU and ELTE Research Shows

Young children take context into account and incorporate knowledge of past events and other people’s beliefs when making decisions, according to a new study by researchers Ildiko Kiraly and Katalin Olah of Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in collaboration with researchers Gergely Csibra and Agnes Melinda Kovacs of Central European University (CEU) published recently in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Imagine an everyday situation: while you are having coffee with your friend, she points to the salt and asks you to pass the sugar. This request will pose no difficulty to you whatsoever; you will simply pass her the sugar and assume that she must have mistaken the salt for sugar. But would such a situation be similarly trivial for a child?” said Kovacs, researcher at Central European University to illustrate the key dilemma of the study.

The researchers wanted to know whether young children can understand similar requests by figuring out what the other person wants and believes, while also taking into account the actual context, as well as past events that might radically change the interpretation of the request, which in the above example might be knowledge about the other person actually preferring coffee with salt.

The research team developed a test of this for 18-month-old and 36-month-old children. The study was run at the Babylab at ELTE. In the test children had to observe a situation where a person puts objects in two boxes. Later another person exchanged the objects, while the first person watched her in sunglasses. The kids would only learn later that the sunglasses were non-transparent, and they had to incorporate this information about the past into their decision-making without any further explanation. In the final stage of the experiment the person formerly in sunglasses pointed at a box and asked the child to give her an object.

Confirming earlier findings, children of both age groups took into account a person’s knowledge when they interpreted her requests, even when she was mistaken. In addition, 36-month-olds could also recall memories of past events to flexibly update their own knowledge about others’ knowledge, and adjust their behavior accordingly.

Specifically, in the case when they realized that the person was mistaken about the location of the objects, they gave her not the object she pointed at, but the other one, as adults would do in the salt-sugar scenario.

Importantly, they could integrate information received later, to revise their inferences and figure out that the person had a mistaken belief.

This finding shows that young children are already equipped with powerful mechanisms that allow them to not only continuously track who knows what, but even to reflect on past events, and if necessary, revise their earlier judgment to find their way in the multilayered web of human social interactions.

For more information, read the publication at this link.