Infants Use Shared Experience to Interpret Pointing Gestures
by Kristin Liebal, Tanya Behne, Malinda Carpenter, and Michael Tomasello
The nonverbal communication gesture of pointing is in and of itself an ambiguous action. It could mean almost anything. To understand the intent behind someone pointing, you need to understand WHAT they are pointing to as well as WHY that object is being pointed to. In previous research, children as young as 14 months of age were found to follow pointing gestures and understand their meaning, but it is unclear if children were acting upon their own desires or if they were relying on previously shared experiences with the adult to interpret the pointing.
The authors had two main questions:
1) Can infants use shared experiences to infer an adult's social intention about what she wants them to do with that object?
2) Will infants act on the object based on their own desires/goals, or will they interpret and respond to the adult's intent depending on previously shared experiences with that adult?
There were two parts to this research study:
Study 1: Do children interpret pointing based on previously shared experiences?
- Twenty-four 18-month-old children and twenty-four 14-month-old children
- Two activites: a puzzle activity and a clean-up activity.
- An orange triangle was introduced which could be seen as a part of either activity
- Procedure: Children played with each game separately with different adults. Immediately after the second activity concluded, Adult 1 came back into the room, either Adult 1 or Adult 2 pointed to the orange triangle, said "Oh, there!", and alternated gaze between infant's face and the orange triangle.
- Each child received one trial to respond to the adult's pointing.
Study 1 Results:
For the 18-month old children, there was a significant difference in the child's responses to the pointing gesture depending on which adult pointed. There was no significant difference in responses of the 14-month-old children. This was likely due to the memory demands of keeping track of two different people and two different games. These results indicate that only older children are able to keep track of different shared experiences and interpret the meanings of a pointing gesture.
Study 2: Do shared experiences matter, or do children act according to their own goals/desires?
- Thirty 18-month-old children and thirty 14-month-old children
- Children were familiarized with both adults by participating in unrelated play for 15 minutes.
- After play period was over, child and Adult 1 shared the clean-up game together. When game ended, Adult 2 entered the room again and either Adult 1 or Adult 2 pointed to the target object.
Study 2 Results:
Both age groups demonstrated significant differences in their responses. Overall, few children cleaned up the target object when Adult 2 pointed compared to when Adult 1 pointed. Even the 14-month-old children responded differently depending on their previously shared experiences.
Based on the above results, the authors of the study concluded that children can interpret pointing gestures toward objects differently depending on their shared experiences with the person pointing. Also, these interpretations are not done based on the child's own desires, but based on previous interactions with the pointer. These skills are greatly helpful as communication and language skills develop.
I loved reading this research. It amazes me what can be done to interpret skills and behaviors of such young children! It's great to know they can interpret pointing gestures early on. Pointing is such a natural way we begin to interact with infants even before they are talking. It seems to me that using pointing with very young babies as they are able to demonstrate joint attention would lead to their ability to interpret pointing gestures appropriately.
This ability to interpret pointing gestures has a direct link to children interpreting ambiguous communicative statements. In the article, they give the example of a librarian saying, "This is a library!" Typically, this would be interpreted as the librarian telling you to be quiet, not informing you about what building you are in. The ability to understand a statement such as this really begins at a very young age, and pointing gestures can be a part of learning such a skill.
Liebal, K., Behne, T., Carpenter, M., Tomasello, M. (2009). Infants Use Shared Experience to Interpret Pointing Gestures. Developmental Science, 12 (2), 264-271. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00758.x
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