Research shows one-year-olds can guess thoughts through empathy.
Infants as young as 18 months old can guess what other people are thinking, a new study claims. A study of children from rural China, Ecuador and Fiji found that their ability to see the world from others' perspectives emerges much earlier than previously thought. It was previously thought that this ability to empathise only emerges in children between the ages of four and seven, but children from different countries develop it at different ages. Researchers say their findings could also shed light on the social skills that differentiate humans from chimpanzees.
The false-belief test was used - which is one of the few cognitive tasks that youngsters can do that primates cannot. In the classic version of the test, one person comes into a room and places an object like a pair of scissors into a hiding place. A second researcher then enters and puts the scissors in his pocket. When the first person returns, researchers ask the child: "Where do you think the first person will look for the scissors?"
The researchers studied 91 children from three communities in China, Fiji and Ecuador aged from about 19 months to five years old with a live-action play that was similar to the classic false-belief test. The only difference in their version of the test was that as the other person came in to pocket the scissors, he paused, held his chin, and said: "Hmm, I wonder where they'll look for the scissors." Video recordings of the children's reactions to the play showed that the youngsters consistently looked at the hiding place, indicating that they expected the first man to search for the scissors where he had left them.
It was this understanding of what the first person believes and what he doesn't know that the researchers said required the children to make sophisticated inferences about how others see the world. The findings show that children develop this kind of mind-reading ability much earlier than was previously thought and also that it emerges at a similar time across disparate cultures. That suggested that cultural differences had indeed affected previous research. This could be because in many societies parents don't ask children apparently pointless rhetorical questions like "What is the cow doing?", when adults already know the answer. The children in those cultures may be confused by such questions and might think "Why are you asking me? You should know it."