The influence of nonverbal cues associated with looking behavior on young children's mentalistic attributions

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<ul><li><p>THE INFLUENCE OF NONVERBAL CUES ASSOCIATED WITH LOOKING BEHAVIOR ON YOUNG CHILDREN'S MENTALISTIC ATTRIBUTIONS </p><p>Derek E. Montgomery, Christy Moran, and Leslie M. Bach </p><p>ABSTRACT: The ability of children to use looking behavior as a cue to guide their mentalistic attributions was assessed. In Experiment 1 video displays were pre- sented in which a protagonist faced one of two potential goals, half of the time standing equidistant from both targets and in the remaining trials standing closer to the target not being faced. Preschoolers consistently based their inferences of an- other's attention and goal on the direction in which the protagonist was facing. However, in Experiments 2 and 3 preschoolers experienced difficulty in correctly inferring an actor's desired goal when the protagonist's body was oriented in a direction opposite of where she was looking. Under these conditions, only young elementary school children consistently inferred that the protagonist's goal was the target being looked at (Experiment 2). The results from these three studies suggest that an important development occurring in childhood is the ability to consistently distinguish gaze from body orientation when inferring the goals of another. The implications of this development for children's understanding of the mind are dis- cussed. </p><p>One of the most active research areas in recent years in the field of social cognitive development concerns children's developing theory of mind (Flavell &amp; Miller, in press). A theory of mind is the set of implicit assumptions one makes about a hypothesized causal interrelation of mind (e.g., desires, beliefs) and behavior. The syllogism "If an agent desires X (mental state), and sees that it exists, she will do things to get X (behavior)" is a core assumption of an adult-like theory of mind (Gopnik &amp; Wellman, </p><p>The authors gratefully acknowledge Scott Miller and two anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. The assistance of Rachel Permuth, Robert Bretveld, Christine Cappetta, and Samantha Stalling is also appreciated. This research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (1 RO3 MH 54528-01 ) to the first author. </p><p>Address correspondence to: Derek Montgomery, Department of Psychology, Bradley Uni- versity, Peoria, IL 61625. </p><p>Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 20(4), Winter 1996 @ 1996 Human Sciences Press, Inc. 229 </p></li><li><p>230 </p><p>JOURNAL OF NONVERBAL BEHAVIOR </p><p>1994). This predictive syllogism plays a central role in how the causes of the behavior of oneself and others are conceptualized and this centrality is one reason for the high level of interest in children's developing theories of mind. The absence of such a causal-explanatory system would result in an entirely foreign and largely unrecognizable worldview in which human behavior might instead be explained in terms of physics, previous rein- forcement schedules, teleology, and so forth (Dennett, 1987). </p><p>Although determining another's desired goal in order to predict action comprises a core function of a theory of mind, attaining accuracy in this endeavor is neither straightforward nor obvious because mentation, by def- inition, is internal and often private. Typically, the desires and goals under- lying an action are not overtly announced by the actor. However, one po- tential mechanism by which children might overcome the essential privacy of first person mentation rests in the possibility that "internal" mental states are, in fact, overtly perceivable (Butterworth, 1994; Montgomery, 1996). An internal process must have an outward criterion if that process is to be imputed with any consistency and with any standard that defines accuracy (Wittgenstein, 1953). Thus, if mental states are consistently "embodied" in such a way that certain nonverbal behaviors are criteria that reveal an internal state, then the developmental task of attributing mental states to others becomes greatly simplified. For example, a child would not have to relearn the nature of another's desire and goal with every new variation in circumstance and setting if perceptually available criteria revealing those mental states consistently generalize to new situations. </p><p>In addressing how the critical ability of reading goals from nonverbal cues might develop, Baron-Cohen (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 1993, 1995; Baron- Cohen &amp; Cross, 1992) has recently drawn attention to the importance of gaze direction as a potentially foundational cue. Gaze direction is closely monitored by human infants, as well as by a number of nonhuman species (e.g., Povinelli &amp; Eddy, 1996), leading Baron-Cohen to argue that monitor- ing the gaze of others is an inborn characteristic in humans. This early perceptual attunement is said to provide an important foundation for the development of an "attention-goal" psychology, which is the implicit belief that "people normally look at (attend to) the object they act on" (Baron- Cohen, 1993, p.74). Put another way, very young children are said to con- sistently infer that gaze is directed toward goals. Concepts such as goal and attention can be thought of as emerging in order to explain why people are more likely to act upon things they are looking at compared to things not being looked at; as a result, one should expect children's early emerging attributions of goal and attention to be constrained by gaze direction (Baron-Cohen, 1995). </p></li><li><p>231 </p><p>DEREK E. MONTGOMERY, CHRISTY MORAN, LESLIE M. BACH </p><p>To date, however, direct evidence that children's early mentalistic at- tributions are guided and constrained by another's gaze direction is sparse. This is somewhat surprising given the importance placed by adults on the cue of gaze when making a range of mentalistic inferences (Argyle &amp; Cook, 1976; Kleinke, 1986; Zebrowitz, 1990). For example, increased amounts of gaze toward someone can signify a greater interpersonal liking for that person (e.g., Burgoon, Buller, Hale, &amp; deTurck, 1984; Palmer &amp; Simon, 1995) and can lead to perceptions of such characteristics as friendliness and intimacy (e.g., Kleinke, 1986). All of these inferences presuppose, of course, the belief that gaze direction reflects the thoughts and interests of the person varying his or her looking behavior. In other words, an adult assumes that others purposefully direct their gaze toward a goal or person because of an interest in, and desire to learn more about, the target upon which gaze is focused. </p><p>Presently, the only direct test of whether young children also share the assumption that gaze direction is volitional and goal-directed suggests competence among children as young as age 3 (Baron-Cohen, Campbell, Karmiloff-Srnith, Grant, &amp; Walker, 1995). Baron-Cohen et al. (1995) pre- sented to preschoolers and autistic children a display in which a cartoon face was surrounded by different candies depicted in four corners of the display. Each candy was equidistant from the face; however, the eyes of the face were clearly directed toward one of the candies. The 3- and 4-year- olds, but not the autistic children, consistently inferred that the candy the cartoon character wanted was the one his gaze was directed toward, even when an arrow was pointing to a candy different from where the eyes were directed. These results were interpreted as revealing that by age 3 children infer that persons tend to look at things they wish to obtain. </p><p>However, although informative, these findings are based upon chil- dren's interpretation of drawings of faces in which the eyes are especially prominent. In addition to this relative lack of ecological validity, the Baron- Cohen et al. (1995) finding does not rule out the possibility that any bodily association between person and target may be thought by children to sig- nify a desire for the target and that gaze direction holds no special signifi- cance to them. To illustrate, since gaze direction is typically aligned with the lower body, both gaze and body orientation are physical associations between actor and goal and each may influence children's mentalistic attri- butions. Another example of a general association between actor and goal is that, typically, the nearer (physically) one is to an object, the more likely one can be assumed to have an interest in it. For example, if two persons are facing an object, preschoolers infer that the person moving closer to the object is the one who desires to obtain it (Lyon, 1993). To examine the </p></li><li><p>232 </p><p>JOURNAL OF NONVERBAL BEHAVIOR </p><p>depth of children's understanding of the relation between gaze direction and goal, it is necessary to portray situations in which a protagonist is associated with one potential goal because her gaze is directed toward it and is also physically associated with another potential goal because a salient (yet, to adults, conceptually less meaningful) nonverbal cue is di- rected toward it. The purpose of the following research is to construct such scenes to assess the extent of the influence of gaze direction on children's mentalistic attributions of goal. </p><p>The possibility that preschoolers' success on the Baron-Cohen task may not reflect a belief that attention (as indexed by gaze) signifies goal is made credible by recent research revealing relatively little understanding of the relation between mentation and visual perception. For example, pre- schoolers generally indicate that a person's mind is ~not doing anything" when that person is visually examining a picture book (Flavell, Green, &amp; Flavell, 1995a). Young children also often overestimate the attentional ca- pacity of others, saying that someone is "thinking about" or "paying atten- tion to" an object or event peripheral and irrelevant to a problem that person is attempting to resolve (Flavell, Green, &amp; Flavell, 1995b). For ex- ample, preschoolers indicate that someone who is counting the stripes on a scarf being worn by a toy animal is simultaneously attending to peripheral features of the toy such as the sunglasses it is wearing, if, as Flavell and colleagues suggest, preschoolers' attributions of attentional focus are rela- tively indiscriminate, then it is questionable that they interpret gaze as re- vealing one's desired goal because of the understanding that persons gener- ally focus their attention upon objects of interest. Instead gaze direction may only be a learned associate of goal-directed activity. If so, then gaze direction may become less influential in attributions of goal when it con- trasts with other associates of goal-directed action. </p><p>In sum, the objective of this research is to establish whether young preschoolers' early mentalistic attributions are indiscriminate or system- atically based upon the cue of where one is looking. Specifically, this issue is addressed by presenting realistic displays of humans and examining young children's inferences of goal when gaze either covaries or contrasts with other potentially influential nonverbal cues such as spatial proximity and body orientation. Experiment 1 contrasts the influences of a general orientation toward something (gaze and body) with the influence of spatial proximity. Experiments 2 and 3 examine the relative influences of gaze direction and body orientation on goat detection. Of particular interest is comparing the accuracy of children's goal detection when these two cues are combined and when they are contrasted. </p></li><li><p>233 </p><p>DEREK E. MONTGOMERY, CHRISTY MORAN, LESLIE M. BACH </p><p>Experiment 1 </p><p>Method </p><p>Participants. in this experiment 18 children in each of two age groups were tested. The age groups were 3-year-olds (range 3-1 to 3-1 1 ; M = 3- 7) and 4-year-olds (range = 4-0 to 5-2; M = 4-7). There were 9 females and 9 males in the younger group and 11 females and 7 males in the older group. Participants were recruited from local preschools, each serving a predominantly middle-class population. One child, a 3-year-old, exhibited attentional difficulties and was subsequently replaced. All participants were tested individually in a quiet room. </p><p>Materials. Children watched as videotaped scenes were presented on an 8 in. x 11 in. color screen. Each video display depicted a college-aged protagonist (each gender was equally represented across the six videos) standing erect with a neutral facial expression. The protagonist was stand- ing in a neutral location that was positioned between a green room (lo- cated to the viewing subjects' right) and, to the left, an orange room. The rooms, so named because of their floor and wall colors, were noticeably distinct and served as the potential goals that the protagonist might wish to obtain. The clothing of the protagonist was neither orange nor green, thereby preventing children from associating the protagonist with one of the rooms on this superficial basis. These goals are deliberately neutral because young children might have difficulty understanding that one of two goals is not desired by the protagonist if both goals are perceived as highly desirable. The camera was positioned at the midpoint of the two rooms, providing the viewer a profile view of the protagonist and thereby making the eye direction clearly visible (pilot testing of these displays re- vealed that preschoolers had no difficulty indicating where the protagonist was looking). </p><p>In both the Standard and Contrast trials, the gaze and body orientation were fully directed toward the room being faced, meaning that the pro- tagonist was turned 180 degrees away from the non-goal. In the Standard trials the protagonist was equidistant from the green and orange rooms in that she was standing exactly 3 ft from both rooms. In one variant of this trial type the protagonist was facing the green room and in the other vari- ant the protagonist was facing in the-opposite direction (toward the orange room). In the two Contrast trials, the cues of gaze/body orientation and spatial proximity were opposed so that the protagonist was noticeably closer to the room that was not being faced (3 ft) than to the room being faced (9 ft). Otherwise, the Contrast and Standard trials were identical in </p></li><li><p>234 </p><p>JOURNAL OF NONVERBAL BEHAVIOR </p><p>the positioning and appearance of the protagonist. There were also two variants of the Contrast trials as the protagonist again faced either the green room or the orange room. In the third trial type (Attention), children were asked which room the protagonist was "paying attention to." There were two variations of this trial, one identical to the Contrast trial and the other identical to the Standard trial. Half of the time in each variant the actor was facing the orange room and the other half of the time was facing the green room. </p><p>Procedure. The three trial types were arranged in all possible combi- nations, resulting in six orders of presentation altogether. Both variants per trial type were blocked and presented together and their order of presenta- tion was alternated randomly across subjects. Altogether, six trials were administere...</p></li></ul>