by Lauren Selinger & Kristina Olson

Non-verbal communication is one way that we humans interact with one another and express feelings or concerns. Infants, even before they know how to verbally express a thought or feeling, begin to communicate nonverbally. Already, by 1 year of age, infants, for example, start to point in a socially communicative way. Early on, infants point for a very clear reason that all parents of young children can relate to—they point imperatively to indicate to an adult what they want (“Milk!”)! More recent work by Liszkowski and colleagues has suggested that infants also point when they want the attention of an adult (“Look!”).

In both cases, these kinds of pointing might be thought of as fairly selfish. That is, the infants are expressing what they want or they want to socially engage in a task with another person. In contrast, adults point not only for selfish reasons but also to influence another person’s attention or goals. For example, if we see someone trying to get into their car, but frantically searching for something and then we see some keys behind the person’s back, we’ll typically point to the keys. This pointing is an informative gesture for the person’s benefit not our own.

A 2006 study by Ulf Liszkowski and his colleagues sought to investigate when young children first understand this informative type of pointing. They placed infants in situations not unlike the key example above. In the study, adults were searching for an item they had misplaced or lost track of, and examined whether or not the infants would understand the intention of finding the object and pointing to help.

            In one experiment, for example, an experimenter appeared to accidentally drop something on the floor and then appeared to be looking for it. Researchers wondered whether 12 and 18 month olds would point to the dropped object on any of the six trials. They discovered that a full 88% of 12 month olds and 93% of 18 month olds pointed at least once. These results suggest several surprising facts. First, even very early on, young infants have fairly sophisticated understanding of nonverbal communication. A gesture as simple as a point can have many varied meanings. In addition, these results lend additional support to claims that the desire to help others appears to emerge remarkably early in human development. Finally, these results suggest that next time you lose your keys, your infant can be surprisingly helpful at finding you help them.

Note: Lauren Selinger is an undergraduate at the University of Washington and submitted an earlier draft of this blog post for Dr. Olson’s Developmental Psychology course.

Copyright 2014 Lauren Selinger and Kristina Olson

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About the Author

Kristina R. Olson, Ph.D.

Kristina R. Olson, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University.

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