Max Planck Research Group "Early Social Cognition" (ESCo)
Early childhood is a crucial phase for healthy social and cognitive development. For babies and young children it is essential to be in touch with other people, to communicate with them and to learn from them. The Early Social Cognition Group explores the development of social cognitive functions such as action understanding and social attention in the first years. At the core of our research lies the question of what affects social learning in early childhood and how we can promote it.
In our research, we use various approaches from behavioral and brain sciences. For instance, we apply interactive eye tracking, EEG and behavior observations.
(1) How do children learn in social interactions?
When people communicate they unconsciously synchronize their behavior, expressions and gestures and – as recent research shows – their rhythmic brain activities. Being "in tune" with each other seems to be essential for effective communication. It is less clear whether this is also the case in early development. Is there mutual attunement on the neural and behavioral level between children and adults and does this predict whether the child is able to learn something in the interaction? In this project we explore social learning in dynamic live interactions between children and adults. We seek to find out more about the mechanisms underlying social learning in early development in order to find ways to support it.
(2) How do babies direct their attention?
Shortly after birth babies orient their attention toward other people. This is crucial for building up first relationships. It may also help infants to structure the immense amount of new sensory inputs they encounter and to direct their limited attentional resources toward important things in the environment. Using eye tracking we investigate which stimuli direct infants' attention effectively toward events and objects in the environment. We are especially interested in the mechanisms and developmental processes underlying infants' remarkable susceptibility for social cues such as the eyes.
(3) Why do children imitate non-functional actions?
Children learn a lot from other people through imitation. The advantage of imitation learning is that children are able to learn actions whose function they are not yet able to understand. Intriguingly, children also imitate actions that obviously have no function at all when trying to reach a given goal. We explore children's motives for copying obviously non-functional actions. Do kids interpret these actions as behavior norms or game rules? Do they wish to demonstrate their affiliation with a social group or particular person? Or are they actually confused about action functions and causal relations? This research is set out to increase our understanding of the transmission of rituals which often don't have an obvious function but which are nonetheless crucial for intra- and inter-group processes.
(4) How does action understanding develop in the first years?
In copying other people's actions, children learn a lot. However, children do not inevitably imitate everything they see. Sometimes toddlers seem to selectively copy an unusual action when the adult’s reason for performing this action is unclear. Using EEG we study how infants and toddlers perceive actions that are more or less efficient. We especially try to find out whether they consider the context of the action. For instance, we show them a person operating a lamp with his head instead of his hands. The person’s hands are either available or not, i.e., the reason for performing the unusual and rather inefficient head action can sometimes be inferred and sometimes remains unclear. Behavioral research showed that children are more likely to imitate the inefficient action when the person’s hands were available, i.e., when the efficient action would have been possible. But what goes on in children's minds when they observe these actions? At what age do children have expectations about how another person will achieve his goal? Are toddlers already able to consider the context of the observed action when making inferences?