With a series of simple experiments, Amanda
Woodward asks the questions that get inside babies’ minds.
Consider the scene: your mother grabs a bowl,
a cereal box, and a milk carton. Even before she pours, her intentions
are clear: she’s making breakfast. While adult observers intuitively
interpret such activity as goal-oriented, infants under 12 months
are just beginning to understand the link between action and intention,
and they learn to do so through their own experiences, according
to Amanda Woodward, associate professor in Psychology, the Committee
on Human Development, and the College.
Photo by Dan Dry
begin understanding intention in their first year, according
to psychologist Amanda Woodward.
In a paper presented at the February meeting
of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Woodward,
39, counters two prevailing child-development theories: that babies
are born with an innate system for interpreting intentions or that
such a framework develops after 18 months, when children begin to
talk. Instead, she argues, the first year contains many related
milestones, as infants learn to recognize the goals that motivate
grasping, looking, and simple multistep actions, such as opening
a box to retrieve a toy.
“For that learning to take place,”
explains Woodward, “babies have to understand that when other
people act and move around, they’re not just robots moving
mechanically through the world, but rather they are acting intentionally.”
If babies observed movement without connecting it to a goal, “then
all of the rich information that was present in their caretakers’
actions would be opaque to them.” It’s important, then,
to ask when and how infants begin to understand others’ intentions.
In her research Woodward has created a new way
to frame those questions. Because children under 12 months can’t
respond verbally and don’t exhibit much coordinated behavior,
“the trick,” she says, “is to figure out how to
get inside their minds.” To that end she has adapted a developmental-psychology
technique called the “visual habituation paradigm,”
based on the theory that from birth babies can control how long
they look at something, which reveals what they think is important.
When they become bored with a scene they look away, but when a new
element—a different movement or object—is introduced
they look longer.
By measuring the time that babies spend eyeing
a new element, Woodward can establish what they find significant,
including intentional action. If an infant pays more attention to
a change in the researcher’s motion (for example, reaching
for the same toy from the left instead of the right) than a different
object (using the same movement to grasp a new toy), she reasons,
then the baby is placing more weight on the action than the goal.
If the same movement but a different toy elicits more attention,
then the infant is focused not on the physical motion but the intention
In a tiny, makeshift booth in her Beecher Hall
lab, 6-month-olds watched one of Woodward’s student assistants
grasping a ball. When the babies became sufficiently bored with
that action the student changed tactics, either making the same
movements to grasp a bear or a different motion to pick up the ball.
Overall, the babies were most intrigued when the assistant grabbed
the bear than by the shift in movement. Because the infants found
a new goal more interesting, Woodward concluded that by 6 months,
babies can understand the intention motivating an adult’s
But grabbing is a straightforward activity.
More complex acts like looking—which creates an invisible
connection between observer and object—or retrieving a toy
from a closed box—a sequence of steps toward a single goal—can
confound young infants. Using a similar setup, Woodward showed that
babies begin to recognize the actions’ underlying intentions
only near the end of the first year.
This knowledge, Woodward realized, develops
at about the same time that infants themselves start to make similarly
conceptual actions. Pointing, for example, expresses only a cognitive
connection between observer and object, and “if you point
for a little baby,” explains Woodward, “they do what
your dog does; they stare at your hand.” But older infants,
who themselves are pointers, will follow a point. Likewise, babies
who can produce goal-directed, multistep actions—like pulling
a cloth to move a toy closer— understand when they witness
Such correlations, she says, “raised the
question of whether learning to produce an action actually changes
how babies think about that action when somebody else produces it.”
To find the causal link, Woodward had to do an “experimental
intervention”— changing the acts that her subjects could
To see if agency—in this case, the ability
to grab an object—changes how babies understand an action,
Woodward outfitted 3-month-olds with specially made Velcro mittens
and placed Velcro-coated toys in front of them. When you place an
object before a younger infant, she explains, “what you get
is often a lot of staring at the object—you might get muscle
tension, and you’ll get some flapping, but what you won’t
get is smooth and coordinated reaching” and grasping. In this
experiment, when the babies “flapped” around and accidentally
hit the toy, it stuck to their hand and they were able to move it.
Very quickly, she says, the infants began to act purposefully to
“grab” the toys.
Later the same babies and an unmittened control
group were shown a mittened student assistant reaching for the Velcro
toys. The babies who had used the mittens paid more attention when
the toy was changed than to a new motion, while the control group
focused on the assistant’s movement. “This is the first
piece of evidence that I know of,” Woodward says, “that
infants’ own experience as an intentional agent actually provides
direct information for them to interpret the action of other people.”
In the coming months Woodward’s
lab will continue to study how babies use their experiences to learn
about intention and how they organize that information. She is also
embarking on a project to see if infants’ results in her intentional-agent
experiments will predict their level of abstract thinking some three
years later. For this, Woodward says, she’ll have to track
down the kids and do more “cognitive detective work”
to solve another developmental puzzle.—A.L.M.