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New theory on development
could usurp Piagetian beliefs

Developmental experts say babies have more conceptual abilities than previously believed.

By Beth Azar
APA Monitor staff; 8/98

Infants are like little scientists, testing and modifying theories to figure out how the world works, according to a novel theory of child development.

With the theory, researchers are attempting to replace Piagetís theories, which have dominated the field of developmental psychology for the past 50 years, said developmental psychologist Susan Gelman, PhD, of the University of Michigan.

Piagetís theories were critical for getting the field of developmental psychology off the ground and for inspiring studies to test his theories,Ē said a champion of the new theory, Andrew N. Meltzoff, PhD, of the University of Washington. 'But itís time to move on.'

Most developmental psychologists agree, said Gelman. Findings from basic research over the past 20 years donít support Piagetís stage theory of development. For one, Piaget predicted that infants couldnít imitate a facial expression until late in the first year. But studies show that even babies less than a month old can imitate.

In a new book, 'Words, Thoughts and Theories' (MIT Press, 1997), Meltzoff and Alison Gopnik, PhD, of the University of California at Berkeley, posit that infants form theories about how the world works, including ideas about the permanence of objects, the consequences of actions, and how other people think and feel. And, as they receive new information from the environment, babies modify their theories to better explain what theyíre seeing, hearing and feeling, the theory states.

'We think that infants in their cribs are actively trying to structure and make sense of the world,' said Meltzoff.

Researchers call this theory the 'theory theory.' And Gopnik and Meltzoff believe it fits the developmental data better than more traditional stage theories, including Piagetís.

'I think [the theory theory] is very promising,' said Gelman. 'Although itís by no means accepted by everyone--all the data simply arenít in yet.'

For example, scientists still argue over exactly how much of the brainís hardware is present at birth and how much must develop through experience, said Gelman.

Some theories state that all the abstract knowledge structures that adults use to understand the world exist at birth but babies canít access them.

As they age, the knowledge structures--represented by connections in the brain--turn on one by one.

Others contend that infants begin with no knowledge structures. Instead, they have simple reflexes and their knowledge structures build up over time.

The theory theory asserts that babies donít start with all the knowledge structures that adults have. But they have the equipment that allows them to form theories and revise those theories as they receive more data from their environment.

'They have a succession of theories about people and the world,' said Meltzoff. 'Input from people and things then lead them to change their theories.'

A nice example of how this works concerns infantsí understanding of desires and how their desires relate to othersí. Infants younger than 18 months donít differentiate their own desires or wants from other peopleís, research demonstrates.

'If a 12-month-old wants a cookie, they think everyone will want the cookie,' said Meltzoff. 'They donít take into account that others have a point of view that is different from their own.'

Twelve-month-old infants recognize that their attempts to communicate a desire are sometimes ineffective--no matter how loud they scream to gain access to the china cabinet they are denied. But they show no signs of understanding why their attempts are ineffective.

By 18 months, however, the evidence that their theory might be wrong has built up enough that children begin to systematically explore situations in which their own desires conflict with another personís.

'A 12-month-old who crawls determinedly towards the lamp cord until he is dragged away kicking and screaming is one thing. An 18-month-old who looks you straight in the eye as he slowly and deliberately moves his hand towards the lamp cord is quite another,' write Gopnik and Meltzoff.

'The [18-month-olds] are doing a little psychology experiment with us. They are trying to test whether it really is the case that their desire for the lamp cord, which looks so enticing, is not shared by the parent,' said Meltzoff.

This change in infantsí theories about desires may provide an explanation for the 'terrible twos,' Gopnik and Meltzoff contend.

In their book, they weave together evidence from basic research with discussions of philosophy to support the theory theory, said Gelman.

'This is one of the ablest, most persuasive expositions of the Ďtheory theoryí approach to cognitive development the field has yet seen,' said developmental expert John Flavell, PhD, of Stanford University.

And although the theory may or may not replace Piagetian theory as the model for child development, it is very important to the field of developmental psychology, said Gelman.

Gopnik and Meltzoff 'have put forth a lot of interesting, detailed claims that can now be tested,' she said.

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