A cute mistake kids make about social reciprocity is bigger than we realised

Two little girls seem surprisedBy Christian Jarrett

If you’ve spent any time playing hide and seek with a young child you’ll know they make a cute mistake, which is to think that if they can’t see you, then you can’t see them. It works the other way too. If a person is blindfolded, children aged up to about four will say that they cannot see this person.

Psychologists explain the mistake as having to do with the significance kids place on mutual gaze, which reflects a special meeting of minds. To an extent, they’re right about this, but they take things a little too literally, mistakenly thinking that without reciprocity of gaze, neither party can see the other. Now a paper in the Journal of Cognition and Development has shown that this error is more far-reaching than previously documented. Preschoolers are also prone to thinking that if you can’t hear or speak to them, because your ears or mouth are covered, then they in turn can’t hear you or speak to you. 

Henrike Moll and Allie Khalulyan performed two studies with dozens of three- and four-year-olds. The set-up involved the experimenters sitting in front of the children and one of them using their hands or a prop (such as headphones or a blindfold) to cover either their own eyes, mouth or ears. The other experimenter would then ask the child a question, such as “Can you speak to [experimenter’s name]?” or “Can you see [experimenter’s name]?”.

Around 70 per cent of the time, if the experimenter’s eyes were covered, the children said they could not see her – this is a replication of the known mistake children make in the way they over-interpret the need for mutual gaze. Crucially, the results also showed a similar mistake for hearing and speaking, though to a lesser extent. If the experimenter’s ears were covered (whether by hands or prop), then about half the time the children said they could not hear her, and it was a similar story when the experimenter’s mouth was covered, in which case they frequently said they could not speak to her.

Further careful testing showed that this was largely modality specific. For example, if the experimenter’s mouth was covered, then the children more often than not would say that they could see her (but could not speak to her). It’s also not the case that they were simply misunderstanding the question as being about the experimenter’s abilities to see, speak or hear. The researchers tested this by asking the children about the experimenter’s perceptual abilities, in which case the children responded differently from how they responded earlier – for example, if she was blindfolded, they said with near 100 per cent accuracy that she could not see. This difference in their answers indicates they had interpreted the earlier questions as being about their own abilities, not the experimenter’s.

It seems children consider the opportunity for social reciprocity not only when making judgements concerning whether they can see someone, but also when considering other forms of engagement involving hearing and speech. “For them, relating to others implies that the perception or communication ‘flows’ both ways,” the researchers explained. “They often judge it impossible to relate to someone who cannot simultaneously relate to them.”

We need more research to find out how children grow out of this cute mistake – in the current research, the four-year-olds made the error just as much as the three-year-olds. The researchers added that it would also be interesting to study whether this error is made to the same degree by children on the autistic spectrum, who usually show less eye contact than normal, and may place less significance on the importance of social reciprocity.

“Not See, not Hear, not Speak”: Preschoolers Think They Cannot Perceive or Address Others Without Reciprocity

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

One thought on “A cute mistake kids make about social reciprocity is bigger than we realised”

  1. It strikes me that actually the children are probably right. Surely you can speak “at” someone, but you can’t hold a conversation if their mouth is covered?

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