To navigate the world, one needs to represent others’ mental states: others' goals, knowledge, beliefs, and experiences. What are the origins of our mental state understanding, and how does this understanding develop? In one line of research, I've tackled these questions by studying infants' capacities for goal understanding.
Within cognitive science, many have theorized that first-person experience acting on one’s own goals leads humans to understand others’ goals. Contrary to such theories, my research has revealed that 3-month-old infants, who cannot yet reach for objects effectively, can learn to attribute either object goals or spatial goals to other people (Woo et al., in press, Developmental Science; Woo et al., 2021, CogSci Proceedings). In ongoing research, I’ve been exploring the depth, breadth, and limit of infants’ and toddlers’ abilities to reason about others’ minds.
A large body of research suggests that infants and toddlers engage in social evaluation, preferentially reaching for and looking to agents who have helped others over agents who have hindered others in the pursuit of their goals (see Woo et al., 2022, Annual Review of Developmental Psychology). There has been intense debate, however, about the extent of infants’ and toddlers’ understanding of prosocial and antisocial actions.
In the case of helping, for example, are infants and toddlers evaluating agents based on whether they facilitate others' goals? Or are lower-level differences between helping and hindering actions supporting their evaluations? My research has provided evidence that infants and toddlers leverage their understanding of others' goals to evaluate social actions (Woo & Spelke, 2023, Child Development). A key aim of my research is to characterize our early-emerging understanding of the social world.
When we observe others' social interactions, there are multiple agents present, each with their own minds: There can be a lot to track. In most past studies of early social evaluation, infants and toddlers could evaluate agents based only on the outcomes of others' actions (e.g., whether an agent is associated with a positive outcome). In my research, I have challenged infants and toddlers with situations in which the outcomes that agents cause are in conflict with their intentions. For example, I have presented infants and/or toddlers with agents who intentionally vs. accidentally help and harm others (Woo et al., 2017, Cognition) and with agents whose true vs. false beliefs guide their social actions (Woo & Spelke, 2023, Developmental Science; Woo & Spelke, 2022, CogSci Proceedings). Across my experiments, I have found that infants and toddlers privilege others' mental states in their social evaluations.
My research has revealed that infants and toddlers reason about the goals, intentions, and beliefs of agents engaged in social interactions. Moreover, my research raises the possibility that infants and toddlers more strongly represent others' mental states in strongly social contexts (Woo et al., 2023, Trends in Cognitive Sciences; Woo et al., 2021, Behavioral and Brain Sciences). In ongoing research, I've been systematically testing this hypothesis.