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Our Research Catalogue contains grants and outputs data up until April/May 2014.

Perceptual Causality and its Relation to Animacy/Agency in Development

  • Start date: 01 August 2003
  • End date: 30 September 2007

We propose experimental studies on how the perception of cause-and-effect relations in simple schematic events develops. If square A moves towards square B which moves upon contact, adults and children as young as 3 years see this as A launching B, thereby relating minimal perceptual information to complex notions of physical causality. In contrast, if B begins to move before A can reach it, without contact, adults and young children see this as B reacting to A -- trying to run away from it -- relating minimal information to social/psychological causality. Babies also see the causality in these events, but it is not clear yet whether they, like older observers, see the reaction event as an instance of goal-directed motion. Such perceptions may be important because they can facilitate development : they could help children identify and analyse causal events at a time when learnt knowledge about these events and reasoning ability is still scarce. In fact, it has even been argued that perceptual causality may be one mechanism that allows infants to first carve up their world into its physical and social components. We have already found that 6-months-olds are sensitive to causation-at-a-distance in the reaction event, just as they are to contact causality in the launch event. This is striking because standard indicators of infant social understanding do not typically emerge until a few months later. Here, we propose to consider whether even younger infants are already sensitive to causation-at-a-distance. In addition, we propose to study in more detail the relation between perception of causation-at-a-distance and the perception of animate agents and their goal-directed actions. To do this, we will assess infants pattern of visual attention : we repeatedly show them one event until their attention wanes, then measure its recovery upon presentation of a new event. With appropriate design of stimuli for experimental and control groups, this allows us to evaluate whether young infants are already sensitive to causality or goal-directed action, and what stimulus features are crucial for this perception. Here we will concentrate in particular on the role played by cues that the agents may be animate, such as self-initiated motion and non-rigid motion. In addition to the infant studies, we plan to conduct complementary studies with older children and adults on the role of self-initiated and non-rigid motion. Observers of talking age can, of course, simply describe what they see. This is an appropriate method for adults, but young childrens verbal skills are still fragile. For this reason, we ask them to choose which of a set of pictures describes the event best. In addition, we aim to conduct a study with children to consider whether the absence of animate motion effects in prior work on perceptual causality was due to information overload. Finally, we intend to investigate how adults view noncontact events other than our standard reaction events. This is to follow up on previous reports that people paradoxically report physical causality for some noncontact events. It is important to better understand the role that contact/lack thereof plays in perceptual causality, because much of the developmental literature simply treats noncontact stimuli as noncausal. If this is not justified it has implications for established tests of perceptual causality. Overall, this project extends a novel approach to how our causal understanding develops. Our focus is on linking this approach with the equally burgeoning line of work on how our understanding of agents and their goal-directed action develops. Adult perceptual intuitions may be vestiges of infant earliest competencies. Thus the present work will hopefully shed new light on the perceptual basis of social cognition

  • Outputs (25)