Infants Follow Gaze of Reliable Looker (Part 1)

Infants Follow Gaze of Reliable Looker (Part 1)

Previous research on infant gaze following has demonstrated the importance of gaze following in the development of social interaction skills, language skills, the understanding of emotional displays as well as the development an understanding of the beliefs, intentions and desires of others. In an attempt to discover whether 14-month-old infants understand that a “looker” is seeing something that the infant cannot (or the mental activity of understanding another person’s mind) or whether the infant is simply being oriented to a spatial area by the gaze of the looker because of a learned response, researchers at Concordia University examined how infants follow and interpret gaze in various contexts. Two experiments were conducted for this purpose.

The first experiment was used to compare 38 infants on their performance on two tasks: the Search Task and the Gaze Following Task. The purpose of the Search Task was was to establish the reliability of the “looker” or the experimenter. This was accomplished by having the infant observe the experimenter as she opened a container and looked inside while expressing happiness verbally and expressively. The experimenter then passed the container to the infant to allow the infant to explore the container and therefore see what the experimenter was looking at. Approximately half of the participating infants were placed in the ‘reliable looker’ condition and would discover a toy inside the container upon inspection. In this condition, the emotional expression of the experimenter was consistent with what she was looking at. The remaining infants were placed in the ‘unreliable looker’ condition and would discover an empty container upon inspection. In this latter condition, the emotional expression of the experimenter was inconsistent with what she was looking at.

Once the reliability of the experimenter was established, each infant participated in the Gaze Following Task. The purpose of the Gaze Following Task was to establish whether the reliability of the “looker” would influence 14-month-olds’ decision to follow the looker’s gaze to objects hidden behind different barriers. If they do, it means that they have established a relationship between the looker’s direction of gaze and what they are looking at.

In the Gaze Following Task, the infant and his or her parent were seated in the middle of a room with four large objects that would act as barriers to block the object of the lookers gaze from the infant’s view. Each barrier had an attractive toy hidden on the back side and a sticker on the front. The experimenter stood beside a barrier and began by attracting the infant’s attention. When the infant was looking, the experimenter would lean to the side and look at the target while exclaiming “ooh.” In the experimental condition, the target was the object hidden behind the barrier and in the control condition the target was the sticker on the front of the barrier. Each infant completed both an experimental and a control condition for each of the four barriers. After the experimenter’s demonstration the parent was signaled to let the child explore.

Findings from the first experiment showed that during the Search Task, infants in the “unreliable looker” condition took longer to examine the contents of the container in the last trial than they did in the first trial. This suggests that they were becoming disinterested in the task because they learned that there was nothing to look at once they were given the container by the “unreliable looker.” In Contrast, infants in the “reliable looker” spent just as much time on the last trial as they did on the first trial, suggesting that they have established a reliability between the “looker’s” gaze and the content of the container.

Continue to Infants Follow Gaze of Reliable Looker (Part 2)

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About the Author:

Dr Chow is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private clinic in Saint-Laurent (Montreal) and in Saint-Lambert on the South Shore. She received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Concordia University. She is also a member of the Order of Psychologists of Quebec.