Early Childhood Q&A

Ask A Scientist: Can 2-Year-Olds Understand What Other People Want?

By Lillian Mongeau — December 22, 2015 6 min read
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This post is the second in a two-part story, read Part One on Early Years.

Alison Gopnik is a scientist, but she’s also a philosopher. (In fact, her full title is professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkley.) Gopnik doesn’t find the two titles to be in conflict at all. Her research simply combines both areas of study. She takes big philosophical questions about things like how children come to know their own minds are separate from other minds and answers them scientifically.

Gopnik has published several immensely readable texts explaining both her work and the work of others in child development. My introduction to her work came early in my reporting focus on early education, when I read Scientist in the Crib, in an attempt to understand what all the preschool researchers, teachers and policy wonks were talking about. Gopnik has a new book coming out in August called The Gardener and the Carpenter, which is all about what is known scientifically about the relationship between parents and children.

I recently sat down with Gopnik to discuss her work, and the conversation was so interesting that we’re publishing it in two parts. The first part was about how children learn to navigate the physical world, and this part will focus on how children learn to navigate the world of the mind.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

One of the interesting facts I saw on your website was about how kids begin to understand they have a mind that is not the same as everybody else’s mind. And then they begin to understand that other people are making decisions that don’t have to do with them. And I was wondering: How do you get at that? It sounds like just a philosophy question.

One of the most important and hardest things we have to figure out is how do people influence each other? And in particular, how does what’s going on in one person’s mind influence what they do and how they behave?

And back in the 1980s I started this work in this field now called theory of mind. One of the experiments that we did, for example, is this experiment trying to see if people can understand different desires. Understand that one person wanted one thing and another person wanted something else. That’s an example of something that people had thought children were really bad at.

We felt that meant we might be asking the question the wrong way, so we actually did it with food. So we showed children somebody eating either broccoli or goldfish crackers and asking if they really liked it or they really didn’t like it. And what we discovered is between 15 and 18 months, children started out assuming everybody liked the crackers. But if we showed them someone actually acting as if they liked the broccoli, they would give her the broccoli.

And in a new extension of that, [a paper] which we just finished with a student named Stephanie Denison that was presented at the Cognitive Science Society, we showed that we could actually teach the 15-month-olds if we showed them a lot of evidence of people wanting different things. So if two people come in the room and one person always picks the teddy bears from the toy box and the other person always picks the ducks from the toy box, we could actually get the children to do better [at understanding different people liked different things.] We could get the children to understand people’s minds by giving them lots of examples of the fact that people want different things.

So this is kind of like a human blicket detector. (Note: A blicket detector is a machine, described in the first post, that lights up whne certain physical objects are placed on it. It is a tool Gopnik has used in much of her research into how young children think.) Instead of showing children, “OK, the two blocks [make the detector] go on,” now what we did was show children, “Oh look, this person is always acting as if they want teddy bears and this person is always acting as if they want ducks. Maybe that means that people want different things.”

What could preschool teachers and parents, especially, take from what you’ve learned over the years on the topic?

My new book, which is just coming out in August, the subtitle is actually “What the New Science of Child Development Tells us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children.” So that’s what the whole of the new book is about. (Note: Gopnik added that the findings could apply to any adult caregiver.)

I think the big moral, which is the moral that preschool teachers will have already figured out intuitively, is that we don’t really have to make babies and young children learn. All we have to do is let them learn.

[Babies and young children] are designed to be learners. And many of the things that they do that seem to us as if they’re just kind of random or strange or irrational, like the fact that they spend all this time pretending, or the fact that they get into everything, I think that science shows that those everyday activities are really incredibly powerful learning mechanisms. And a lot of the things that we think of as being ways that you can get someone to learn, like explicitly teaching them the way they do in school, are actually much less important and significant in children’s learning than just the things that we take for granted that babies and young children do, like playing or like exploring, or like watching other people.

Preschool teachers know this intuitively, that the best way to have children learn is give them lots of rich things for them to explore and play with and know to be available as a resource to explain and talk and follow the children’s leads. But I think very often nowadays those teachers feel that they’re in a kind of pincer movement between parents on one hand, who are desperate to get their children to go to Harvard and think that they can start that in preschool, and then policymakers who want to have real proof that if they’re doing something like supporting preschool they’re going to get some tangible benefit from it.

The result has been there’s been this increasing movement to make kindergarten like 1st grade, to make preschool like school. And I think people intuitively have a sense that that’s a bad idea, but it’s kind of hard to resist, because if the point is supposed to be for children to learn and you think that the way you learn is through the kinds of things that happen at school, you can see why parents will come into a preschool and say, “Wait a minute, those kids are just playing. They’re not actually learning.”

And I think what we’ve done with this science is to take the other intuition which is, “No, when those children are just spontaneously playing, what they’re really doing is learning. And not just learning, but learning in a very deep and profound way.” And we’ve actually shown that that’s true scientifically, not just intuitively.

Really interesting stuff—is there anything else you would like to add to the things we’ve discussed so far?

An interesting side note is that, increasingly, people are using the ideas about how children learn to try to figure out how to design computers to learn. There’s been a lot of brouhaha recently about the big increases in artificial intelligence. But actually one of the interesting things about those new artificial intelligence ideas is that they really depend not so much on having computers that are as smart as grownups but on having computers that learn as well as children. So a lot of these ideas have gone back-and-forth.

Don’t miss Part One, which ran recently on Early Years.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.