Research

My research investigates core structures of cognition; those inherent cognitive mechanisms with which we interpret incoming information and which enable us to make sense of and reason about the world. My students and I are studying various aspects of cognition within the first months of life, as a means of investigating the nature of the human mind prior to the influences of language, culture, education, and extensive experience. The aim of our research is to gain a better understanding of how the human mind is inherently structured to interpret and make sense of the world — what is the nature of the underlying mechanisms of thought. Our work is currently focused around several central areas.

Early Social Understanding – Social groups, social interactions

We are examining the foundations of social understanding. What are infants’ understandings of the social world? What unwritten assumptions structure our earliest expectations of social individuals, and of their interactions? How do infants categorize different individuals (e.g., as “ingroup”, “outgroup”, “male”, “female”, “old”, “young”, “friendly”, “unfriendly”, etc.), what social categories are meaningful and relevant to infants, and on what bases do infants develop preferences for some individuals over others? What do infants expect about how different individuals will feel and act towards each other, based on their previous interactions? One question of interest is human cooperation and reciprocal altruism: what are the roots of these social tendencies, both ontogenetically and phylogenetically? Do infants have implicit expectations of reciprocation and retaliation that guide their inferences about other’s attitudes and actions? How and when does such understanding develop? Yet another question of interest is how infants track social affiliations and enmities, and if these relationships serve as a basis for social generalization in infants (“the friend of my enemy is my enemy,”)  We are interested in mapping out infants’ early system of social expectations, as well as in asking how this system becomes elaborated, to become the rich and elaborate body of social understanding possessed by adults.

Some recent findings from our lab:

  1. Infants in their first year of life expect that if individual A is helped to achieve a goal by individual B, then A will like B, and will prefer B over another individual, C, who has hindered and interfered with A’s goal. That is, infants assign dispositional states to social agents – attitudes towards others – based on these agents’ social histories with each other.

  2. By early in their second year, infants have developed the more subtle appreciation that two distinct individuals may each harbor a very different attitude toward a third individual: A may like C, while B dislikes C.

  3. In their first year of life, infants show preferences for others who are similar to them. When given a choice between (a) a puppet who has expressed a liking for a food the infant likes, and (b) a puppet who likes a different food, infants choose the puppet who has the same tastes as they do. However, infants don’t seem to develop preferences based on utterly arbitrary similarities – when infants are given a colored mitten to wear, they show no preference for a puppet with the same color mitten over a puppet with a mitten of a different color. (In this, they are ‘smarter’ than adults, who show social preferences based on virtually any dimension of similarity.)

Sample Publications

Wynn, K. (2008). Some innate foundations of social and moral cognition. In P. Carruthers, S. Laurence & S. Stich (Eds.), The Innate Mind: Foundations and the Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kuhlmeier, V., Wynn, K., & Bloom, P. (2003). Attribution of dispositional states by 12-month-old infants. Psychological Science, 14, 402-408.

Social Evaluation, and Foundations of Moral Cognition

An area of great interest to us is the nature and origins of social evaluation – the positive or negative assessment of others based on their social behaviors. The capacity, as an uninvolved bystander, to judge individuals as appealing or aversive based on their actions towards unrelated third parties, constitutes an essential component of a developing system of moral cognition.  Some recent findings from our lab:

  1. Infants of all ages value positive social behavior in others, and are disposed to like individuals who act prosocially (e.g., an individual who helps another in attaining a goal, or who gives a valued object to another), and to dislike individuals who do not act prosocially (e.g., an individual who hinders another in attaining a goal, or who takes a valued object from another, etc.). This sensitivity to, and preference  for, prosociality may stem from an adaptive capacity to detect ‘cooperators’ – good candidate partners for interactions of reciprocal altruism – and to distinguish them from social ‘cheaters’ who renege on implied social contracts.

  2. Older infants (in their second year) choose to learn from, and model, prosocial characters over antisocial characters.

  3. Infants in their second year also judge that prosocial characters are deserving of reward, and antisocial ones, deserving of punishment.

Sample Publications

Hamlin, J., Wynn, K., & Bloom, P. (2007) Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature, 450, 557-559.

Wynn, K. (2008).. Some innate foundations of social and moral cognition. In P. Carruthers, S. Laurence & S. Stich (Eds.), The Innate Mind: Foundations and the Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Evolution and the Social Infant: Adaptive Social Strategies

We are examining social strategies that infants engage in with different categories of individuals. Central to this work is our assumption that infants possess evolved strategies for maximizing gain and minimizing risk in social interactions. When you weigh, say, 8 pounds and are approximately the size of a loaf of bread, are utterly helpless and completely dependent, represent a staggeringly huge resource investment for caregivers, and to top it all off are a tender and juicy morsel to boot, it is essential to offset these vulnerabilities and disadvantages with some powerful tools for promoting social bonding, as well as for identifying potentially threatening individuals and for eliciting protection. To examine these issues, we observe infants in face-to-face interactions with different social partners. Some recent findings from our lab:

  1. One ‘protective’ strategy infants have at their disposal is be as cute as possible, to turn on the charm and be, well, disarming. This entails directing signs of joyful engagement and positive affect full-stream towards a potential social threat. Another strategy entails precisely the opposite: Recruiting backup protection (parents) by announcing loudly and unambiguously that one is faced with a potential enemy through committed crying, an expression of strong negative affect. Infants employ both strategies when faced with potentially threatening individuals (such as unfamiliar adults). This analysis predicts that when faced with a potentially threatening individual, infants should express either positive or strongly negative affect, but should refrain from half-hearted negative affect (which is neither cute nor effective at recruiting backup).  Interestingly, and in accord with this prediction, infants are far more likely to be ‘fussy’, that is, to express low levels of dissatisfaction and unhappiness without committed crying, with their parents than with strangers.

  2. One social cue used by adults is the ‘coy’ smile, used to signal a sense of affiliation and sometimes to signal appeasement: A smile occurring simultaneously with gaze and/or face aversion. Gaze aversion is also used among animal species, again to signal appeasement and social affiliation. While infants are most happy with their parents and give more smiles overall to parents than to strangers, they are more likely to give coy smiles to unfamiliar adults, pointing to the possibility that the coy smile is an evolved strategy specifically for rapidly applying ‘social glue’ and initiating affiliative feelings in unfamiliar others.

Foundations of  Psychological Understanding

What are the cognitive structures that enable us to understand and reason about intentional beings, animate entities with goals, desires, likes, dislikes, and other mental states? The principles that govern the behavior of intentional agents, such as people, are distinct from those governing the behavior of inanimate physical objects like rocks and balls. Yet we reason about intentional agents automatically and effortlessly. What forms the basis of this capacity to distinguish these two realms? Some recent findings from our lab:

  1. Young infants impose an assumption of spatiotemporal continuity in observing and interpreting the movements of inanimate objects, but do not impose this same assumption when observing and interpreting the movements of people. To infants, people are so different from material objects that they are not constrained by even the most basic, fundamental principles of object behavior.

  2. Infants by a year of age distinguish animate from inanimate entities in terms of their abstract causal properties: They understand that only intentional, animate entities can create order from disorder (e.g., organize a tumbled pile of blocks), while inanimate objects can increase disorder (e.g. a rolling ball colliding with a stack of blocks) but cannot create order.

  3. Infants weight intrinsic features of objects more heavily than they do extrinsic ones, when reasoning about the causal locus of a self-moving object’s behavioral capacities. That is, they are “essentialists” when it comes to predicting the behavior of new objects that share select features with a known object.

Sample Publications

Kuhlmeier, V., Bloom, P., & Wynn, K. (2004). Infants do not see humans as material objects. Cognition, 94, 95-103.

Newman, G., Herrmann, P., Wynn, K., & Keil, F. (2008). Infants bias intrinsic features to predict an object’s future behavior. Cognition 107, 420-432.

Wynn, K. (2008). Some innate foundations of social and moral cognition. In P. Carruthers, S. Laurence & S. Stich (Eds.), The Innate Mind: Foundations and the Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Additional Areas of Investigation

We have investigated a number of other issues in the lab as well. Some additional topics that we have studied:

Foundations of Numerical Competence – what are the mental structures and processes that underlie our earliest understanding of number? To address these questions, we have experimentally explored such issues as (a) the kinds of entities infants can enumerate, (b) the kinds of numerical values infants can represent, and (c) the ways in which infants can operate over (manipulate) their representations of number.

McCrink, K. & Wynn, K. (2007). Ratio abstraction by 6-month-old infants. Psychological Science, 18, 740-745.

McCrink, K., & Wynn, K. (2004)2004. Large-number addition and subtraction in infants. Psychological Science, 15, 776-781.

Wynn, K., Bloom, P. & Chiang, W-C. (2002). Enumeration of collective entities by 5-month-old infants. Cognition, 83, B55-B62.

Wynn, K. (1998). Psychological foundations of number: Numerical competence in human infants. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2, 296-303.

Sharon, T. & Wynn, K. (1998). Infants’ individuation of actions from continuous motion. Psychological Science, 9, 357-362.

Wynn, K. (1996). Infants’ individuation and enumeration of actions. Psychological Science, 7, 164-169.

Wynn, K. (1992).  Addition and subtraction by human infants. Nature, 358, 749-750.

Wynn, K. (1992). Children’s acquisition of the number words and the counting system. Cognitive Psychology, 24, 220-251.

Wynn, K. (1992). Evidence against empiricist accounts of the origins of numerical knowledge. Mind & Language, 7, 315-332.

Wynn, K. (1990).  Children’s understanding of counting.  Cognition, 36, 155-193.

Knowledge of ObjectsMuch research has shown extensive competence in infants’ understanding of objects, but in our lab we have also found some surprising limitations to this understanding. These limitations have the potential to inform us in key ways about the nature of the structures underlying infants’ object knowledge. A related question is, What is the relationship between object cognition in infancy, and aspects of object cognition – such as object-based attention and visual object cognition processes – as studied in adults?

Cheries, E., Wynn, K. & Scholl, B. (2006).  Interrupting infants’ persisting object representations: An object-based limit?  Developmental Science, 9, F50-F58.

Mitroff, S., Scholl, B., & Wynn, K. (2005). The relationship between object files and conscious perception. Cognition, 96, 67-92.

Chiang, W-C., & Wynn, K. (2000). Infants’ representation and tracking of multiple objects.

Wynn, K. & Chiang, W. (1998). Limits to infants’ knowledge of objects: The case of magical appearance. Psychological Science, 9, 448-455.

Ability to measure timeWe have investigated in infants the cognitive underpinnings of our sense of time, and explored the relationship between the mechanism for representing duration and that for representing number. A common mechanism has been proposed to underlie both time and number representation in nonhuman animals; evidence from our lab supports the view that the same mechanism underlies both duration and number representation in humans as well.

vanMarle, K. & Wynn, K. (2006). Six-month-old infants use analog magnitudes to represent duration.  Developmental Science, 9, F41-F49.