Thursday, March 27, 2014

Making messes brings babies closer to people

(Via astrorhysy).

M loves increasing entropy in the world – making messes. She is attracted to order: stuff in a basket, books on a shelf, or a pile of freshly folded clothing. She crawls over as fast as her little limbs can go, and begins sowing the seeds of disorder. I'm not the only one who has made this observation. But a study by Newman et al. (2010) suggests that maybe one reason that babies are so attracted to order is that they see it as related to people, since people tend be the primary sources of order in the world. So maybe M's drive to explore orderly things is related to her deep interest in understanding and sharing attention with other people.

In the Newman et al. study, the researchers used the violation of expectation method to test whether 7- and 12-month-old infants had a sense that order is something that is caused by people, rather than inanimate objects. Babies in the study saw videos of an animated ball roll towards a set of blocks that was covered by a screen. When the screen went down, it was revealed that the ball had either sorted or un-sorted the blocks.

In one condition, the ball had some cues that – according to other research in this tradition – should cause babies to think it is an animate agent (a person, more or less): it had eyes, and it seemed to move by itself in a way that indicated it was self-propelled. In another condition, it was just a ball and it rolled across the screen without stopping.

In the animate condition, 12-month-old infants didn't seem to have a strong expectation about what the ball would do and looked equally at both outcomes. In contrast, in the inanimate condition, they looked longer (indicating a violation of expectation) when the ball made the disorderly set of blocks more orderly. The seven-month-olds didn't show any systematic looking differences. A second experiment showed a conceptual replication of this finding using the contrast of a claw and a hand – again infants seemed to expect the claw to be more likely to create disorder than order.

So perhaps M's – and other babies' – interest in order stems from a general interest in people and the patterns they leave in their environment. Maybe when she sees a bookshelf full of books, just ripe for throwing on the ground, she thinks to herself, "I wonder who did that?" Newman GE, Keil FC, Kuhlmeier VA, & Wynn K (2010). Early understandings of the link between agents and order. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107 (40), 17140-5 PMID: 20855603

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