The ability to decide whether, when and how to try is central to human learning. We investigated whether infants can make rational inferences about when and how to try on a novel problem-solving task. After learning from an adult that the task was either easy, difficult or impossible to solve, infants varied in whether, when and how they tried based on the type of social evidence that they received and on their own ongoing experience with the task. Specifically, infants formed expectations about the task, their own ability to solve the task and the experimenter’s ability to solve the task, in light of accumulating evidence across time that impacted their time spent trying, trying force, affect, and help-seeking behaviour on the task. Thus, infants flexibly integrate social input and first-hand experience in a dynamic fashion to engage in adaptive persistence.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Access Nature and 54 other Nature Portfolio journals
Get Nature+, our best-value online-access subscription
$29.99 / 30 days
cancel any time
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 digital issues and online access to articles
$119.00 per year
only $9.92 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Prices vary by article type
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
Similar content being viewed by others
All data are publicly available at https://github.com/klucca/Lucca_et_al_Effort_2019.
All code used for the analyses in the manuscript can be found at https://github.com/klucca/Lucca_et_al_Effort_2019.
Banerjee, P. N. & Tamis-LeMonda, C. S. Infants’ persistence and mothers’ teaching as predictors of toddlers’ cognitive development. Infant Behav. Dev. 30, 479–491 (2007).
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D. & Kelly, D. R. Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 92, 1087–1101 (2007).
Eskreis-Winkler, L., Shulman, E. P., Beal, S. A. & Duckworth, A. L. The grit effect: predicting retention in the military, the workplace, school and marriage. Front. Psychol. 5, 1–12 (2014).
Gergely, G., Bekkering, H. & Kiraly, I. Rational imitation in preverbal infants. Nature 415, 755 (2002).
Meltzoff, A. N. Understanding the intentions of others: re-enactment of intended acts by 18-month-old children. Dev. Psychol. 31, 838–850 (1995).
Schulz, L. E. & Bonawitz, E. B. Serious fun: preschoolers engage in more exploratory play when evidence is confounded. Dev. Psychol. 43, 1045–1050 (2007).
Gopnik, A. et al. A theory of causal learning in children: causal maps and Bayes nets. Psychol. Rev. 111, 3–32 (2004).
Xu, F. & Tenenbaum, J. B. Sensitivity to sampling in Bayesian word learning. Dev. Sci. 10, 288–297 (2007).
Gopnik, A. & Wellman, H. M. Reconstructing constructivism: causal models, Bayesian learning mechanisms, and the theory theory. Psychol. Bull. 138, 1085–1108 (2012).
Jara-Ettinger, J., Gweon, H., Schulz, L. E. & Tenenbaum, J. B. The naïve utility calculus: computational principles underlying commonsense psychology. Trends Cogn. Sci. 20, 785 (2016).
Liu, S., Ullman, T. D., Tenenbaum, J. B. & Spelke, E. S. Ten-month-old infants infer the value of goals from the costs of actions. Science 358, 1038–1041 (2017).
Jara-Ettinger, J., Floyd, S., Tenenbaum, J. B. & Schulz, L. E. Children understand that agents maximize expected utilities. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 146, 1574–1585 (2017).
Leonard, J. A., Lee, Y. & Schulz, L. E. Infants make more attempts to achieve a goal when they see adults persist. Science 1294, 1290–1294 (2017).
Kidd, C., Palmeri, H. & Aslin, R. Rational snacking: young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition 126, 109–114 (2013).
Birch, S. A. J., Akmal, N. & Frampton, K. L. Two-year-olds are vigilant of others’ non-verbal cues to credibility. Dev. Sci. 13, 363–369 (2010).
Kachel, G., Moore, R. & Tomasello, M. Two-year-olds use adults’ but not peers’ points. Dev. Sci. 21, e12660 (2018).
Zmyj, N., Daum, M. M., Prinz, W., Nielsen, M. & Aschersleben, G. Fourteen-month-olds’ imitation of differently aged models. Infant Child Dev. 12, 250–266 (2012).
Zmyj, N., Buttelmann, D., Carpenter, M. & Daum, M. M. The reliability of a model influences 14-month-olds’ imitation. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 106, 208–220 (2010).
Goupil, L., Romand-Monnier, M. & Kouider, S. Infants ask for help when they know they don’t know. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 3492–3496 (2016).
Lucca, K., Horton, R. & Sommerville, J. Keep trying!: parental language predicts infants’ persistence. Cognition 193, 104025 (2019).
Xu, F. & Kushnir, T. Infants are rational constructivist learners. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 22, 28–32 (2013).
Goubet, N., Rochat, P., Maire-Leblond, C. & Poss, S. Learning from others in 9–18-month-old infants. Infant Child Dev. 15, 161–177 (2006).
Repacholi, B. M., Meltzoff, A. N., Hennings, T. M. & Ruba, A. L. Transfer of social learning across contexts: exploring infants’ attribution of trait-like emotions to adults. Infancy 21, 785–806 (2016).
Messinger, D. S. & Messinger, S. Positive and negative: infant facial expressions. Psychol. Sci. 11, 1–6 (2002).
Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. V. Facial Action Coding System: Investigator’s Guide (Consulting Psychologists Press, 1978).
West, B. T., Welch, K. B. & Galecki, A. T. Linear Mixed Models: A Practical Guide using Statistical Software. (Chapman and Hall/CRC, 2014).
McCullagh, P. & Nelder, J. A. Generalized Linear Models (Chapman & Hall, 2008).
Baayen, R. H., Davidson, D. J. & Bates, D. M. Mixed-effects modeling with crossed random effects for subjects and items. J. Mem. Lang. 59, 390–412 (2008).
R Core Team. R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing (R Foundation for Statistical Computing, 2014).
Bates, D. & Maechler, M. lme4: Linear mixed-effects models using S4 classes. R version 0.999375-35 https://github.com/lme4/lme4/ (2010).
We thank the researchers of the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at the University of Washington for their help in participant recruitment, data collection and coding. In particular, we thank A. Sedlacek, Y. Xu, J. Lee, S. Cho, K. McManus, M. Rozaniti, K. Ventura and P. Carpentier. We also thank B. Kuykendall for his assistance with the force gauge installation and data extraction, as well as the families and infants who participated in this study. This work was supported by a grant from the Society of Research on Child Development awarded to K.L., and through a grant from NICHD (no. 1R01HD076949-01) awarded to J.A.S. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Lucca, K., Horton, R. & Sommerville, J.A. Infants rationally decide when and how to deploy effort. Nat Hum Behav 4, 372–379 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0814-0