Newsletter Article

How do children learn about goal-directed behavior?

February 17, 2010, 7-9 pm, Kane Hall Room 120

Jessica Sommerville, Associate Professor: A Cognitive Perspective

Photo of Liliana Lengua

As adults, we are adept at understanding the behavior of other people around us. Key to this process is our ability to think about our own and other people's actions as guided by goals or intentions. For instance, upon seeing a woman reach toward a cookie jar, we go beyond focusing on the surface properties of the act (e.g., the speed and trajectory of the woman's reach) to interpret this action as directed toward the goal of obtaining a cookie. Our tendency to view action as motivated by goals is a powerful tool in our ability to navigate our social environment. It enables us to monitor and modify our own behavior, to predict the outcome of the actions of others, and to both teach and learn a variety of activities and skills. Professor Sommerville’s research focuses on understanding the origins of the ability to represent human action in terms of goals and intentions.

A critical question addressed by Professor Sommerville is identifying when an understanding of action, as guided by goals, develops. Her research has shown that the precursors to action understanding are present in infants as young as six months of age and that there is a rapid development over the subsequent six months. Her research has also addressed the factors that contribute to changes in infants' and children's action representations.  For example, her research has shown that self-produced action is critical to the development of action understanding. In addition, her research has shown that adult preferences, as expressed through language, play an important role in infants’ ability to understand others in a truly psychological fashion.

Visit Professor Sommerville’s lab website:

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Dr. Rebecca Saxe (Assistant Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Fred and Carole Middleton Career Development Professorship, Dept. of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT) will be joining Dr. Sommerville on February 17, 2010.