Science News

Is it Me? Decision Making Babies

Sat, 25th Jun 2011

Katrina Stewart

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Also in the news this week, 16 month old babies can use limited evidence to decide if they have been given a faulty toy, or are just using the toy incorrectly, according to a study published this week in the journal Science.

In order to achieve goals, we need to learn to make this important distinction between faults with ourselves and faults with our environment. For example, if a light switch doesn’t work, is it because we pressed the wrong button or because the bulb is broken?

Scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed some clever experiments where infants watched an adult pressing a button on a green toy to produce a sound. Next, the baby was handed either the green toy, or an otherwise identical yellow toy, neither of which worked when the baby pressed the button. The infants had to make a decision: were they making a mistake, for example not pressing the toy hard enough? Or was the toy itself broken?

When they were presented with the green toy, which they had previously seen working well, babies tended to hand the toy to their parents once they failed, possibly deciding that the fault was with themselves, and their parents would be more successful.

But when they were given the yellow toy, babies were more likely to discard the toy and reach for another, a red one placed nearby. As the babies had no evidence that yellow toys worked at all, they were more likely to believe the fault was with the object, and have another go with a different toy.

But researchers wanted to rule out alternative explanations. Could the babies given the experimenter’s toy be less likely to want a new toy? Or were they handing toys over because they thought their parents might be able to fix the toy rather than show them how to use it?

So experimenters showed the babies the green toy again, but this time the babies watched as the same experimenters sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed with the toy, suggesting the fault was with the toy itself. Babies picked up on this, and were more likely to give up on the familiar
green toy and reach for the new red one.

Next, babies watched two different adults – one who consistently failed to produce the noise when they pressed the green toy, and one who always succeeded. After this, babies tended to hand the toy over to their parents, suggesting that the babies were aware there was a ‘knack’ to it that they
just hadn’t mastered.

These fascinating results show that from a very early age, babies can make evidence based decisions about which response to failure, seeking help or exploring alone, will be most likely to lead to future success. They understand the important distinction between faults with themselves or the world
around them.

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That means 16 month old babies are brighter than some adults I know, but that's no shock. Bored chemist, Mon, 27th Jun 2011

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