Walk in My Shoes: Can Toddlers Take Another Person’s Perspective?

Photo Credit: dreamponderCreate
Photo Credit: dreamponderCreate

When my son was just over 3, granny was visiting us. When granny visits, mommy is very happy, because granny gets up with the kids on the weekends and mommy gets to sleep in. That said, since mommy is used to getting up at 6:30, “sleeping in” no longer means what it used to mean. I came down for breakfast not long after granny and my son came down, and I asked my son if he would like some milk. Indignant, he said, “I already said no!” – Turns out that granny just asked him the very same question (perhaps because he always wants milk as soon as he goes downstairs in the morning). Why was he so indignant? It’s very hard for young children to consider what other people know and don’t know, and my son assumed that, being mommy, I knew everything and therefore heard him saying no to granny and, being mommy, was just nagging.

I wrote before about the difficulties children have with considering what other people know. And yet, studies show that even apes take into consideration what other apes can and cannot see – or what they do and don’t know – when deciding on their action. It turns out that when you ask the right questions, toddlers answer.

What they did

The authors of this paper wanted to see whether toddlers would be able to take into account another person’s perspective – that is, what another person can and cannot see. They tested 18-and 24-months-olds in the following procedure: the child was on one side of the room, and the experimenter came into the room for the other side. There were two toys on the floor, one was visible to the experimenter, and the other wasn’t (it was hidden from the experimenter’s sight behind a bucket). The experimenter either just asked, “Can you give me the toy?” or showed searching behaviours and said, “Where is it? I can’t find it! Can you give me the toy?”

What they found

In significantly more than 50% of the times (50% is what you would expect by chance), 24-months-old but not 18-months-old gave the experimenter the toy that was hidden from him in the experimental condition (when it was obvious that the experimenter was searching for something). Both groups gave the experimenter the hidden toy 50% of the time in the control condition, when he simply asked for it.

What does it mean?

It means that 2-year-olds were able to take another person’s perspective and understand that the experimenter couldn’t see the object because it was occluded, even though the child could see the toy. They basically took into account another person’s knowledge to guide their behaviour. It may not be explicit knowledge in the way that 4-year-olds are able to say that Maxi thinks that his chocolate is still in the cupboard because he didn’t see mom move it to the drawer, but it’s still quite amazing. Also, this study is so elegant and cool that I just had to share it.

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