Thursday 27 October 2011

What’s special about human communication?

Children understand the 'logic of cooperation' from a very young age

Apes and other living creatures have some ability to communicate, but human communication is unique in relying on a basic shared assumption that we want to cooperate with each other.  New research from Germany shows that children who are just beginning to acquire language can already understand this underlying “logic of cooperation”.

Three researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig conducted a series of ingenious experiments with 48 children – 21 girls and 27 boys – aged 21 months. An adult researcher first played on the floor with a child, using several objects that became  interesting when something was added to them, such as a torch that could be switched on when a battery was inserted. Later, the researcher sat at a table holding a basket containing the objects in one hand, and taking one object from the basket to hold in her other hand. Both hands, then, were occupied. In the case of the torch, one battery was on the table where the researcher was sitting, and another battery was on a table at the other side of the room. The child was sitting on their parent’s knee, mid way between the two tables. The researcher suggested that they play with the torch again, then pretended to only just notice that both her hands were occupied.  She then said to the child “oh but I still need the battery. What do I do now? Can you help me please?” Although the children could have decided to get either of the two batteries to help the researcher switch on the torch, most of them chose to get the one that was on her table. This also happened when the researcher did not ask for help, but instead simply suggested that the child could join in the game, saying “Now you can do it. Take a battery”.

Things changed when the researcher had one hand free. This time she again asked for help, holding the torch in one hand and holding out the other hand with the palm up, ready to receive the battery. In this case twice as many children as before chose to go and fetch the battery that was on the table at the other side of the room.

The differences in the children’s behaviour, the researchers argue, shows that even very young children take account of the adult’s situation when interpreting a request that is ambiguous. They chose the distant battery more often when it was the only one the researcher needed help retrieving: when one hand was free, she could have easily picked up the battery that was close to her, so the child works out that she must need the other one. Not all the children could do this, but the fact that twice as many fetched the distant object when one of the researcher’s hands was free shows that even at this very young age, children can put themselves in the position of the person making a request in order to work out what is needed. As they acquire language, then, children also begin to appreciate the cooperative and rational nature of human communication.

Gerlind Grosse, Henrike Moll and Michael Tomasello (2010) 21-Month-olds understand the cooperative logic of requests. Journal of Pragmatics 42: 3377-3383.

doi 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.05.005

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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