I recently came across this awesome TED video titled, "What Do Babies Think?"In her talk, the psychologist Alison Gopnik discusses her research on how babies learn, make decisions, and ultimately, conduct their own experiments during play. She challenges our age-old beliefs about babies' intellect, and suggests that babies are much more sophisticated learners than we give them credit.
Gopnik describes an experiment she conducted as part of her research to examine the way babies think. Conventional wisdom would say that babies are completely self-centered and do not have the cognitive ability to take another's perspective. However, Gopnik showed quite the opposite in 18 month old babies, when she tested this theory. She gave the babies two snack options - broccoli florets and goldfish crackers. Obviously, one of these choices in purely delicious for babies (goldfish, duh) and the other is not so yummy (broccoli). The researcher then tasted the too-healthy-to-be-delicious broccoli and enthusiastically said, "Yummy! I just ate the broccoli and it is yummy!" (or something like that). Then, the researcher, tasted the crackers and said something like, "Oh, yuck! I just tasted the crackers and they are yucky!). Next, the researcher told the baby, "Give me one."
Which would the self-centered little people offer the grown-up? One would expect them to offer the delicious goldfish, even though the researcher showed her obvious love for broccoli. We would assume that babies could not take the perspective of the researcher and offer what the researcher would like.
However, Gopnik found that the babies at 18 months old, would offer the researcher the broccoli! Apparently, 15 month olds would still offer goldfish, but by 18 months babies had usually learned the "advanced" skill of perspective-taking, which is the precursor to empathy.
These type of experiments are so intriguing to me! I decided to try it with Jr., just for kicks. I am sure there are tons of confounding variables since I'm his mommy, but I couldn't resist. And, of course, Jr. is only 14 months, so I didn't really expect to see much perspective-taking. Here is what I offered:
Carrots and goldfish (no confounding color variables). I enthusiastically loved the carrots. I then spit out the goldfish very dramatically. Then, I said, "Give me one, Jr." Here's what I got:
He did look quite confused for awhile and then reached in and gave me a carrot. After that bite, I tried it again, just to be sure. Here's what I got:
The whole bowl of carrots! My son must be a perspective-taking genius! Hubby may have a point, though. Could it be that Jr. really is quite self-centered and merely shared the carrots because he wanted all the crackers to himself? Nah, surely not :)