Your Clever Toddler in Week 75: Realizing Objects Don't Have Intentions
What your child learns this week
Your Child’s Brain in Week 75
These days, it’s clear that that your little one can tell what you were meaning to do even if, well, it didn’t quite work out as you’d planned. (Review that lesson from two weeks ago.)
Indeed, by 18 months, toddlers can pick up information even from the failed attempts of humans. But what if your young child sees a machine fumble and goof? Will she imitate and correct the missed efforts of a mechanical device, too?
What the Research Shows
Researchers built a machine that didn’t quite look human but mimicked the movements of the person performing tasks in the experiment described in Week 74. To imitate a human attempting to pull the ends off a wooden dumbbell, the device had pincers that grasped the dumbbell on each end, just as the researcher’s hands had, and pulled outward. The pincers then slipped off one end—just as the human hands had done. Similarly, another mechanical device attempted (without success) to hang a necklace over a wooden cylinder, and a third tried to put a tool in a box to push a button to activate a buzzer, but missed, not activating the buzzer inside.
The toddlers who watched the mechanical devices were as riveted by the activities as the group that had watched the person had been. But the groups differed significantly in their tendency to mimic what they saw: Children who watched the human’s failed attempts were much more likely to reproduce the correct behaviors—they successfully pulled the ends off the wooden dumbbell, hung the necklace over the cylinder, and pushed the button to sound the buzzer.
But the children who watched the mechanical attempts fail found it difficult or just uninteresting to imitate what the machines they had seen were attempting to do. It’s as if they identified with the people but not with the mechanical devices. The findings provide evidence that 18-month-olds definitely distinguish the abilities—and moreover, the intentions!—of people versus things.
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