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Theory-of-Mind Developments

Early Social Interest and Responsiveness

As we will see, the most often studied aspects of infant theory of mind do not make their appearance until roughly the last third of the first year. This does not mean, however, that learning about people begins only at this point. In fact, infants are interested in and responsive to the social world from birth. Here is a sampling of the phenomena that illustrate this point (Flavell et al., 2002; Legerstee, 2005; Reddy, 2008; Walker-Andrews, Krogh-Jespersen, Mayhew, & Coffield, 2013).

From birth, infants find voices especially interesting in the auditory realm, and from birth or soon after (there is some dispute on this point) they find faces especially interesting in the visual realm. From birth infants can recognize their own mother’s voice, and from soon after birth they can recognize their own mother’s face. Furthermore, infants are not simply passive observers of the social world; rather, from birth they emit signals that elicit specific and adaptive responses from the people around them. Crying is the first such signal, and it is soon joined by smiling, cooing, and babbling.

Not only do such early infant behaviors elicit predictable responses, but the infant expects them to do so. From early on, infants enter into turn-taking bouts with the parent, emitting a behavior and waiting for a response, emitting another behavior once the response is received, and so forth. That infants expect a response is shown by what happens in its absence, for if the expected response is not forthcoming, infants typically become quite upset. The main source of evidence on this point comes from a procedure called the Still-Face Paradigm (Tronick, Als, Adamson, Wise, & Brazelton, 1978). The Still-Face Paradigm consists of three phases: an initial baseline phase of normal face-to-face interaction between an adult (typically the mother) and the infant, a second phase during which the adult adopts a neutral expression and no longer responds to the infant’s overtures, and a final phase in which the adult resumes normal interaction. Most infants find the second phase upsetting, reacting at first with heightened attempts to elicit a response, followed by distress, followed by turning away and withdrawal.

Various additional ways in which infants distinguish between people and other objects become evident across the early weeks. By 5 weeks infants imitate the actions of a person but not similar actions produced by an inanimate object. By about the same age they expect people to respond to their social overtures (as results from the Still-Face Paradigm show), but they show no such expectations for inanimate objects. By a few months of age they reach for objects that they wish to draw near but vocalize to bring people near. By the middle of the first year they are surprised by apparent self-produced movement from an inanimate object but show no such surprise when people move. And by the middle of the first year, if not earlier, they are sensitive to the emotional expressions of others, including the way in which different emotional cues fit together. If shown an angry face, for example, they expect to hear an angry voice should the face start to speak.

These and other forms of early social sensitivity are precursors to the theory-of- mind achievements to which I turn now. Before discussing specific developments, however, I will note a general advance that is reflected in each of the more specific achievements. Figure 6.1, taken from the Moore (2006) book, provides a pictorial depiction. As we have just seen, from birth infants are social creatures who engage in countless interactions with the important people in their lives. Initially, though, all such interactions are dyadic, in the sense that each partner’s focus is on the other, and any environmental element (a toy, a bottle, etc.) is at best an incidental prop in the interpersonal back-and-forth. Infants do, of course, at times focus on toys and bottles and other parts of the inanimate environment; when they do, however, they do not maintain a simultaneous focus on an interactional partner. The interaction thus remains dyadic, either infant and social partner or infant and environmental object.

By some time in the second half of the first year the situation changes. The change is gradual rather than abrupt, and researchers are not agreed with respect to its timing. Eventually, however, the focus of interaction broadens to include not just two but three elements: infant, adult, and environment. Now the interaction between infant and adult is about something, and now the infant for the first time realizes that the adult has a psychological connection to something in the world—that the adult sees, likes, desires, or whatever the object on which both

Example of a triadic interaction in infancy

Figure 6.1 Example of a triadic interaction in infancy. Note. From The Development of Commonsense Psychology (p. 94) by C. Moore. Copyright 2006. Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, a division of Informa plc.

are focused. Such a realization marks a basic advance in theory of mind: the earliest understanding that other people have psychological states.

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