Infants’ understanding of their social world
Infants’ understanding of their social world

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Infants’ understanding of their social world

2.2 Infants understand that adults are ‘like me’?

Andrew Meltzoff and his colleagues have carried out an influential series of studies on infant imitation spanning some 20 years. This work has begun to unravel some of the processes taking place in early infancy that form the building blocks of social cognition during the first two years of life. These building blocks are precisely those that enable young children to interact with their caregivers and peers (see reading below).

5 Activity

Timing: Allow about 2 hours

Meltzoff, A. and Gopnik, A. (1993) ‘The role of imitation in understanding persons and developing a theory of mind’, in Baron-Cohen, S., Tager-Flusberg, H. and Cohen, D.J., Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Autism, Oxford, OUP.

The role of imitation in understanding persons and developing a theory of mind [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

This chapter by Meltzoff and Gopnik (1993) provides a useful outline of the argument that infants are able to recognise the other people are ‘like-me’, and from this recognition follows the social abilities of infants to relate and interact with people. Note that in this paper Meltzoff and Gopnik suggest that this ‘like-me’ understanding might be innate.

More recently, Meltzoff (2007) has outlined some ingenious experiments that show how 12- and 18-month-old infants use their own first-person experience to interpret other people’s behaviour. Imitation of a baby’s actions by adults, together with his or her close observation of the interactions between other people, have been shown to lead to particular forms of social understanding concerning the relationship between self and other. Meltzoff argues that:

Infants represent the acts of others and their own acts in commensurate terms. They recognise cross-modal equivalences between acts they see others perform and their own bodily felt movements. This recognition of self–other equivalences in action give rise to interpreting others as having similar psychological states such as perceptions and emotions. The ‘like me’ nature of others is the starting point for social cognition.

(Meltzoff, 2007, p. 126)

Thus babies recognise not only that people have special qualities that set them apart from objects, as Fernyhough points out, but also they may recognise that other people are ‘like me’.

Meltzoff suggests that this is an important insight which helps to explain the ability of infants to take part in complex social interactions. The recognition of others as separate from the self provides a starting point for the development of babies’ concept of self. (See also Rochat, 2002.) In addition, the recognition that others are ‘like me’ can provide a basis for an understanding of the actions of others on the basis of what you yourself would do in the same situation. In other words, this provides the basis of being able to simulate the thinking and behaviour of others.

6 Activity

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

How does Meltzoff and Gopnik’s approach to infant socialisation differ from the approach of Reddy?

How might different methodological approaches account for any differences in their theoretical perspectives?


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