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Natalie Neusch
Contributing Writer

Your Baby Recognizes How Much You Value a Goal by Seeing How Hard You’re Willing to Work for It

New study from Harvard and MIT shows your baby can tell how badly you want something.
PUBLISHED ON 11/25/2017

We’re all familiar with the old proverb “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” For adults, the benefit of working hard towards a goal usually comes in the form of actually achieving it. While this may seem like a pretty grown-up concept, we may begin learning this idea of hard work and pay-off from a very early age, simply by observing those around us doing it on a regular basis.

A new study coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University shows that babies as young as 10 months can “assess how much someone values a particular goal by observing how hard they are willing to work to achieve it.”

This is a skill that requires incorporating information regarding the cost of achieving said goal and the benefit acquired by the person seeking it. It’s an important step in demonstrating that babies exhibit early intuition about how people make decisions. There have been prior published reports outlining the behaviors of older children assessing a person’s motivations by observing the amount of effort exerted towards obtaining a goal. Researchers at MIT/Harvard wished to examine further exactly how and when we develop this ability.

Shari Liu, a graduate student at Harvard’s Lab For Developmental Studies and lead author of the paper, says, "Infants are far from experiencing the world as a 'blooming, buzzing confusion,'" referencing psychologist William James’s description of a baby's first experience of the world. "They interpret people's actions in terms of hidden variables, including the effort [people] expend in producing those actions, and also the value of the goals those actions achieve."

The experiment consisted of showing 10-month-old infants animated videos where a cartoon bouncing ball tries to reach another cartoon character (the goal). In the series of videos, the ball had to leap over walls of varying height to reach the other character, at times refusing to jump (do the work). Then the babies were shown a sequence where the ball could choose between goals, without having any obstacles in the way.

The outcome showed that the babies assumed the ball would choose the goal it had “worked” harder to achieve in the earlier videos. Researchers recorded similar results when the babies watched cartoons doing other types of tasks like climbing ramp and jumping across gaps.

"Across our experiments, we found that babies looked longer when the agent chose the thing it had exerted less effort for, showing that they infer the amount of value that agents place on goals from the amount of effort that they take toward these goals," Liu said.

Josh Tenenbaum, a professor in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, a core member of the joint MIT-Harvard Center for Brains, Minds and Machines (CBMM), and one of the paper's authors said, "This study is an important step in trying to understand the roots of common-sense understanding of other people's actions. It shows quite strikingly that in some sense, the basic math that is at the heart of how economists think about rational choice is very intuitive to babies who don't know math, don't speak, and can barely understand a few words.”

While this isn’t the first experiment of its kind, it indicates that this ability to calculate how much someone values something based on their exerted effort to attain it actually develops at a much earlier age than previously thought.

PHOTO: Layland Masuda