Institut Jean Nicod

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Workshop on Early Social Cognition


September 16-18, 2013

Paris (ENS)


Statement of purpose :

In the past ten years or so, developmental psychological research has significantly changed our understanding of early human social cognition in three domains: understanding others’ instrumental actions, understanding others’ communicative actions, and evaluating others’ social actions.
1. Understanding instrumental agency
Since Onishi and Baillargeon’s (2005) paper, more and more evidence based on spontaneous (non-elicited) tasks shows that preverbal human infants can track not only the motivations but also the epistemic states of agents of instrumental actions (including their false beliefs). These findings raise the following fundamental questions:
a) Why do 3-year-olds who know the actual location of an object find it so difficult to predict where an agent with a false belief about its location will look for the object, when verbally prompted?
b) When infants (or adults) apply the teleological stance (in Csibra and Gergely’s sense) and compute an agent’s goal (or goal-state) from the agent’s action and the situational constraint, are they not taking into account the agent’s perception of the constraint (i.e., an epistemic state of the agent)?
c) The question has been repeatedly raised whether preverbal infants could have the representational and computational resources to compute an agent’s epistemic states (in particular her false beliefs), not whether they could compute the agent’s motivations (goals or preferences). This asymmetry seems to reflect the assumption that the content of an agent’s motivation is intrinsically easier to compute than the content of her epistemic state (cf. Wellman’s priority of desire psychology over belief-desire psychology). Is this assumption warranted?
2. Understanding communicative agency
Two related but distinct novel frameworks in the developmental psychology of human social cognition have emerged: the shared-intentionality framework (Tomasello and colleagues) and natural pedagogy (Csibra and Gergely). Both emphasize the early sensitivity of preverbal human infants to cues of cooperative and non-verbal communicative actions. However, these frameworks diverge to a significant extent about whether infants’ ability to recognize an agent’s communicative intention rests on their prior motivation and cognitive ability to engage in joint actions by entertaining shared goals or not. While the shared-intentionality framework seems to stress the symmetry between preverbal infants and cooperative or communicative agents, the natural pedagogy framework seems to stress the asymmetry between young learners and knowledgeable care-takers or care-givers. One way to address this divergence is by investigating the following question:
d) Is the basic function of early pointing by preverbal infants to share attention and interests with, or rather to seek information and thereby learn from, knowledgeable adults?
The evidence showing both early sensitivity to others’ communicative intentions and early ability to track others’ false beliefs raises the following question:
e) To what extent are these findings consistent with Carey and Spelke’s theory of core knowledge about social cognition, if core knowledge is taken to be knowledge shared by human infants and non-human primates (as shown by work in numerical cognition)?
3. Social/moral evaluation
On the one hand, recent investigation of early social and moral evaluations (by Wynn and colleagues) shows not only that preverbal human infants are sensitive to the contrast between others’ actions directed towards conspecifics according to whether the agent helps or hinders another’s own action, but also that they have a preference for the former over the latter. On the other hand, recent investigation of early social and moral evaluations also seems to confirm Piaget’s view that social evaluations by young children take primarily into account an agent’s causal role, not her intention.
The investigation of early social and moral evaluation seems to me to raise at least the three fundamental questions:
f) What are the effects of in- vs. out-group manipulations on early social evaluations?
g) Given the evidence showing the early sensitivity of human children to others’ intentions (and motivations in general), how come it is so hard for young children to combine information about an agent’s causal role and information about her intention in the social evaluation of the agent?
h) Accidental harm and attempted harm are cases in which an agent’s intention and causal responsibility are dissociated. Is there evidence from the investigation of adults’ social evaluation of accidental harm and attempted harm for a signature in adults of the difficulty displayed by young children in taking an agent’s intention into consideration in tasks of social evaluation?

Participants :

Renée Baillargeon, Fiery Cushman, Gyuri Gergely, Katherine Kinzler, Agnes Kovacs, Ulf Liszkowski, Yuyan Luo, Henrike Moll, Elizabeth Spelke, Victoria Southgate, Karen Wynn, Liane Young.



Ecole Normale Supérieure, 29, rue d'Ulm. Salle Langevin. Dans la limite des places disponibles.

Monday September 16

9:30-10:00 Welcome & intro

10:00-11:15 Elizabeth Spelke (Harvard Univesity)
Core social cognition


11:30-12:45 Victoria Southgate (Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development)
Investigating mind reading in the first year of life.


14:15-15:30 Ulf Liszkowski (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics)
Theory of Action in Mind

15:30-16:45 Agnes Kovacs (Central European University)
Are all belief files equal? Content selectivity in belief computation


17:00-18:15 Heinrike Moll (University of Southern California)
A mid-level Understanding of Beliefs in 3-Year-Olds

Tuesday September 17

9:15-10:30 Gyuri Gergely (Central European University)
Do ghosts have cooperative intentions?


10:45-12:00 Renée Baillargeon (University of Illinois)
Early sociomoral reasoning

12:00-13:15 Yuyan Luo (University of Missouri)
Understanding others' preferences using statistical information and transitivity.


14:45-16:00 Karen Wynn (Yale) University
Social Evaluations by Preverbal Infants: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly


16:15-17:30 Fiery Cushman (Brown University)
Causal and Mental State Reasoning in Moral Judgment

Wednesday September 18

9:15-10:30 Liane Young  (Boston College)
Young Moral Cognition: On high and on the ground

10:30-11:45 Katherine Kintzler (University of Chicago)
Linguistic diversity marks social groups and facilitates interpersonal communication


12:00-13:30 General discussion

Organizer : Pierre Jacob (CNRS, IJN)