Intention is the understanding that what we do has meaning and impacts us on a physical, mental and emotional level. So, if we reach for an object, we want to possess it. If we smile after obtaining the object we are happy. If we cry after we hug someone and walk away, we are saddened by that moment and so on. This information, understanding someone’s intention, is critical insight that helps us make sense of our social world. New research is attempting to put together the essential building blocks of how infants learn intention. We did our best to whittle down the information to it’s most rudimentary components and focus only on this system, and not others that may come into play. No matter, it is still exciting information about a critical aspect of our socialization.
Building Block 1: Infancy
Within a few months, infants recognize when we are reaching for something and will look in the same direction as the person who is reaching for the object. This is called recognition of self-produced, biological motion.
Building Block 2: 6 months
By 6 months, babies have sufficient expectations about what people are doing and they continue to build up these references as they grow. Babies are learning this because their own experience of reaching for objects is informing their knowledge and because they are keen observers of others. Infants also understand that inanimate objects do not possess motion.
Building Block 3: 9 months
By 9 months, babies understand that people have motion goals and persist past obstacles, accidents and failures until their goal is reached. They also have already linked an emotion with reaching that goal, be it happy if accomplished or disappointment if not. This linkage, a mental state (happy, disappointment, etc.) with a physical state (self-produced, biological motion) is key.
Building Block 4: 10 months
Around 10 months, babies start to understand that there are separate goals adults want to accomplish even though their actions are one continuous stream of movement. For example, they understand that even though a Mom may clean up, change a diaper, change the laundry, and get a snack in one continuous stream of action, that each action has its own separate goal. They also look to the adult’s face during play suggesting that they are seeking information about the adult’s emotional state.
Building Block 5: 14 months
By 14 months, babies begin to understand much more sophisticated aspects of intentional action, like how people make decisions to carry out their actions and obtain their goals in different types of situations. Babies are also able to understand that if someone else uses a set of actions to accomplish their goals, then they too can use the same actions to accomplish their own goals (a.k.a. rational imitation). This level of understanding begins to impact how babies learn (imitate) their culture.
– Infants do not need to be explicitly taught intention; they learn it on their own from being expert observers, and their own burgeoning ability to reach for objects.
– Babies understand that language is an exchange of information, that there is intention within it.
– Babies learn that what someone is paying attention to is a clue to their intention and that intentions belong to individuals (not everyone has the same intention). For example, not everyone is reaching for the bottle.