Summary: Infants tend to trust others’ observations more than their own.
Studying 8- and 12-month-old infants, the researchers found that younger infants prioritized an animated character’s attention over their own in tracking an object’s location. However, by 12 months, children showed signs of transitioning towards trusting their own observations more.
This “altercentric bias” might facilitate learning during a time when the infant’s ability to interact with the environment is limited.
Younger infants (8 months old) displayed an “altercentric bias,” prioritizing the attention of an animated character over their own observations when tracking an object’s location.
By the age of 12 months, infants showed signs of transitioning towards trusting their own observations, indicating the receding altercentric bias.
Researchers suggest that this bias in infancy might serve to facilitate learning when the infant’s ability to physically interact with the environment is limited.
Source: University of Copenhagen
Children are often perceived as egocentric—and not without good reason. For example, it is well documented that 3-year-old children only use their own perspective when predicting someone else’s actions.
Adults also find it difficult to disregard theirs when empathizing with other people. Our egocentric tendencies continue throughout our life.
However, the story is different when it comes to infants. This is shown in a new research project from the University of Copenhagen, where researchers have studied the ability of 8- and 12-month-old infants to remember the location of a moving object.
The aim of the project was to test a theory that early in infancy there is a so-called altercentric bias:
The infant trusts other’s observations more than their own. The study, titled “An initial but receding altercentric bias in preverbal infants’ memory,” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Following the attention of other people
First, the researchers investigated whether infants as young as 8 months can remember the location of an object if it is moved from one hidden location to another. To do this, the researchers used an animation showing a conveyor belt or a hand moving a ball behind one screen and then behind another screen.
“When we then reveal either location as empty, the children look longer at the place where the ball should be. This shows us that the children have a memory of where the object moved to,” says Velisar Manea, postdoc at the Department of Psychology, who led the research project.
To investigate how the attention of others affects infants’ memory, the researchers then conducted an experiment in which an animated human character also followed the movement of the ball.
“While the ball is being transported to its first location, the animated character looks at the ball. Then we cover the character and the infants are left alone to watch the movement of the ball to the second location,” explains Manea.
“As predicted, babies expected to see the ball in the first location, even though they had seen it being moved to the second location. They prioritized the animated agent’s attention to what they saw afterwards.”
The research team conducted a control experiment where the animated agent follows the ball’s location from start to finish.
“To our surprise, infants looked equally to both revealed locations in this experiment. Once again, the 8-month-olds possibly expected the ball on both locations, as the agent attended both,” says Manea.
But when does the child start to trust their own observations? The research team investigated this question by conducting similar experiments with 12-month-old children.
“Unlike the 8-month-old children, the 12-month-olds were able to remember the last position of the ball in the experiment, where the agent also saw the final location,” says Manea.
In contrast, when the agent only saw the ball in the first hiding location, but the babies saw the transfer to the final location alone, they looked equally to both places.
“This suggests that 12-month-old children are in a transitional phase, where some infants are less affected by the perspective of others, while others are still strongly influenced,” says Manea.
So why is the infant’s memory built to initially rely more on the observations of the people surround it—and then later become more independent?
“We think that the altercentric bias facilitates the child’s learning at a unique time in life when motoric immaturity limits the infant’s interaction with the environment,” Manea suggests.
An initial but receding altercentric bias in preverbal infants’ memory
Young learners would seem to face a daunting challenge in selecting to what they should attend, a problem that may have been exacerbated in human infants by changes in carrying practices during human evolution.
A novel theory proposes that human infant cognition has an altercentric bias whereby early in life, infants prioritize encoding events that are the targets of others’ attention.
We tested for this bias by asking whether, when the infant and an observing agent have a conflicting perspective on an object’s location, the co-witnessed location is better remembered. We found that 8- but not 12-month-olds expected the object to be at the location where the agent had seen it.
These findings suggest that in the first year of life, infants may prioritize the encoding of events to which others attend, even though it may sometimes result in memory errors. However, the disappearance of this bias by 12 months suggests that altercentricism is a feature of very early cognition.
We propose that it facilitates learning at a unique stage in the life history when motoric immaturity limits infants’ interaction with the environment; at this stage, observing others could maximally leverage the information selection process.