Here's one you can do with your own child, based on a 2012 study, to see how early children can learn about how competent an adult is:
Age Range: Between 15 and 18 months old
Research Area:Cognitive and social development
For this experiment, you'll need two adults and about a dozen common objects whose names your baby recognizes (e.g. a shoe, a bottle, a sponge, a toy car).
Set up a chair in front of a wall or partition, and have one adult -- we'll call him the Assistant -- stand behind it with the objects. Place your baby in a high chair opposite the chair and have the other adult -- we'll call her the Experimenter -- sit in the chair.
The Experimenter should capture your baby's attention and interact with her. Meanwhile, the Assistant should reach out from behind the wall and display one of the objects so that the baby can see it but the Experimenter cannot.
If your baby points to the object, the Experimenter should turn around and say, "Look at that! It's a ..." and correctly label the object. If your baby does not call attention to the object within 60 seconds, move on to the next object. Continue until all of the objects have been displayed, and make note of how many times your baby points to the objects.
A few days later, repeat the experiment, but with the Assistant and Experimenter roles reversed. Use the same procedure, but this time, when your baby points to an object, the Experimenter should turn around and say, "Look at that. I wonder what it is. Maybe it's a ..." and incorrectly label the object, using the name of one of the other objects.The Hypothesis:
Your baby will point to objects more frequently when the Experimenter correctly labels the objects than when she incorrectly labels the objects.
In a 2012 study published in the journal Developmental Science, researchers separated babies into two groups. With the first group, the Experimenter correctly labeled objects when the babies pointed to them, and with the second, the Experimenter incorrectly labeled the objects.
The babies in the first group pointed significantly more (67% of the time) than the babies in the second group (31%).
The researchers posit that babies point to objects in these circumstances because they want information about the objects, and they expect that the adult can provide it.
The results of this experiment suggest that when babies perceive the adult to be incompetent -- that is, unable to provide accurate information about the objects -- they become less likely to seek out information through pointing, because they come to realize that the adult cannot provide it.
It's remarkable what's going on inside your baby's head as he makes the determination of an adult's competence. He has to 1) recognize what the object really is; 2) recognize that the adult's label is either correct or incorrect; and 3) use that information to form a judgment about whether the adult's future answers are likely to be reliable.
Now that you know that your baby is making these sorts of determinations, be careful about how you respond to his pointing and other attempts at interrogation. Giving him truthful, satisfying answers will make it more likely that he will consult you for guidance in the future.
Citation: Begus, Katarina and Southgate, Victoria. "Infant pointing serves an interrogative function," Developmental Science 15:5 (2012), pp 611–617.
Want more experiments you can do with your children?
Front page image credit: KnowMemes.com