Saturday, January 15, 2011

Theory of Mind

La Cocotte made her first contribution to science today. She participated in a study at a local university the goal of which is to evaluate whether babies and toddlers can perceive that other people may have desires and motivations that are different than their own and what is done with this information. There were a series of fun activities in which she participated. My favorite was the snack activity. She was offered two bowls - one containing cauliflower and one containing goldfish (i.e. the cheese flavoured crackers, not the best selling piscine pet from the local pet store). She was allowed to pick which snack she wanted and eat as much as she wanted. I was surprised that she went for the goldfish as she is a huge fan of cauliflower but she has never had or seen goldfish before so maybe the novelty won out. Anyway the researcher then took the bowls back and proceeded to taste a piece from each bowl. The researcher tried the goldfish and made a very sour face and exclaimed that it was bad and yucky! She then tried the cauliflower and smiled and pronounced it very tasty indeed. La cocotte was then given the bowls back and asked to offer the researcher a snack (the bowls were placed equi-distant from her). The idea is - does she realize the researcher's preference for cauliflower and therefore offer the researcher the snack of her choice or does she (la cocotte) offer a snack based on her own preference. The exercise was repeated several times to control for hand preference i.e. make sure she wasn't just offering the snack closest to her right hand. It was also repeated with green beans and cheerios. In all cases* la cocotte offered the researcher the snack for which the researcher had shown the preference despite it clashing with la cocotte's preference (no one will be shocked that she preferred cheerios over green beans I suppose).

*Ok, in one case she offered no snacks and just kept eating the cheerios herself.

So... on one hand we could say I have a very empathetic baby who grasps theory of mind i.e. she understands that different people have different desires and she tries to fulfill those desires. On the other hand, maybe she was just thinking "Sucker... you get the green beans, that leaves more cheerios for me!".

But then the exercise was repeated with the researcher having a preference for the same snack as la cocotte and sure enough... la cocotte ponied up the cheerios and goldfish so there you have it, empathy and sharing in the toddler set! Which wasn't a huge surprise, la cocotte has been sharing tons of things with me since about the time she hit one year of age. Sometimes it is a coveted blueberry, even when the supply is scarce, she'll still reach out and pop one into my mouth. Other times it is something slightly less desirable, usually something pre-chewed, but it still counts as sharing in my book.

It's a fascinating sometimes frustrating stage in her development. Her verbal comprehension has clearly exploded in the past few months. We can ask her to do small tasks and she obliges (if she's in the mood, which is fair enough) but she still does not have much language yet. So we know there's a ton going on behind those big, blue eyes but we're still missing the rosetta stone to allow us to interpret. We get by with the pointing and grunting, but oh what I'd give to know what is going on in that pumpkin head of hers. I sometimes feel so ill equipped to understand and interpret her needs, desires and motivations. Other moms seem to KNOW every grunt, half-formed word, cry, squeal their child makes and attribute a specific meaning to it. Do they really know or is it mostly projection?

Her pre-verbal days will soon come to an end and with them so will end some of the wonderful, frustrating mystery. While I look forward in great anticipation to being able to have a conversation with her, I know I will also feel nostalgia for these mysterious times.


  1. Very interesting!
    Babies are so non-selfish and do not think about using any tricks to make themselves better off (unfortunately it will eventually worn out and then they will become regular human beings).

    I wonder whether now she is wondering where goldfish went when you feed her cauliflower.

  2. Interesting. I wonder, though, if perhaps the "real" thing being studied wasn't parent's behaviour during the test (and, yes, I used the Canadian spelling of behavior). Psychologists are tricky that way!

  3. I got interrupted right after I read this and couldn't comment. Just wanted to say I loved this post.