Infants’ perception of goal-directed actions: development through cue-based bootstrapping
It is now widely accepted that sensitivity to goal-directed actions emerges during the first year of life. However, controversy still surrounds the question of how this sensitivity emerges and develops. One set of views emphasizes the role of observing behavioral cues, while another emphasizes the role of experience with producing own action. In a series of four experiments we contrast these two views. In Experiment 1, it was shown that infants as young as 6 months old can interpret an unfamiliar human action as goal-directed when the action involves equifinal variations. Experiments 2 and 3 demonstrated that 12- and 9-month-olds are also able to attribute goals to an inanimate action if it displays behavioral cues such as self-propelledness and an action-effect. In Experiment 4, we found that even 6-months-olds can encode the goal object of an inanimate action if all three cues, equifinality, self-propelledness and an action-effect, were present. These findings suggest that the ability to ascribe goal-directedness does not necessarily emerge from hands-on experience with particular actions and that it is independent from the specific appearance of the actor as long as sufficient behavioral cues are available. We propose a cue-based bootstrapping model in which an initial sensitivity to behavioral cues leads to learning about further cues. The further cues in turn inform about different kinds of goal-directed agents and about different types of actions. By uniting an innate base with a learning process, cue-based bootstrapping can help reconcile divergent views on the emergence of infants’ ability to understand actions as goal-directed.