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PRAGmatics and Trust In Communication in eArLy Life – PragTICAL

Pragmatics and Trust In Communication in eArly Life

Humans have some faith in what is communicated to them, even when their informants are complete strangers, who could be mistaken or lying. Where does this trust come from? Although this question was raised more than two centuries ago (e.g. Hume, 1748), it remains largely unanswered, in great part because of a lack of appropriate empirical evidence. The project PRAGTICAL capitalized on the tools of infancy research to probe the origins of trust in communication in the first years of life.

Where does trust in communication come from?

In the last ten years, great progress has been made in the study of preschoolers’ skepticism. Conversely, very little is known about the sources of trust in communication in infancy. The overarching goal of this project was to investigate the building blocks, scope, and origins of human trust in communication, central to learning and cultural transmission. Its main objectives are (1) to decompose the expectations that are guiding infants’ interpretation and acceptance of communicated information, and study (2) how these different expectations develop and interact in the first years of life, (3) how they support human conception of knowledge and truth, (4) how they interact with the representation of others as agents with beliefs and goals, (5) how they interact with the formation of social relationships, and (6) to what extent these expectations are experience-dependent.

The project focused on two sources of trust in communication: the assumptions of competence and the assumptions of benevolence that attach to communication. To this date, most research on the development of selective trust has been performed with preschoolers and older children. The kind of tests employed in these researches are generally far too complex to test human infants. To address this challenge, the project relied on a combination of methods that allow to test pre-verbal subjects: Violation of expectation, interactive behavioral studies, and measures of arousal. The project also tested the very early developmental origins and limits of infants’ trust in communication.

This inherently multidisciplinary research program has been completed at the Institute for Cognitive Sciences Marc Jeannerod (CNRS UMR5304) in collaboration with philosophers, experts on adult pragmatics, communication and linguistic, and specialists of infants’ social cognition.

PRAGTICAL has allowed a systematic study of the development of trust in communication in the first years of life. This work revealed, consistent with a counter-intuitive hypothesis first proposed by D. Hume, that (i) infants are less gullible than children aged 2 to 3, and that (ii) this increase in trust reflects a change in the reliability attributed to communicative acts, even when they are entirely new. The PRAGTICAL project has also shown that in their second year of life, young children's trust in communication is strong enough to make them completely forget what they saw directly. This form of strong trust, postulated by many theories of human learning, had never been shown at such a young age. This strong trust is necessary for the transmission of counter-intuitive beliefs (for example in the scientific or religious field). The project also highlighted the consequences of this strong reliance on communication on young children’s learning. The project revealed that young children have representations of knowledge, truth and falsehood that develop very early on, and are comparable to those observed in adults. The project also showed that young children can represent the competitive, mentalistic, and epistemic aspects of lying. In addition, the PRAGTICAL project has shown that despite this sensitivity to the competence and benevolence of adults, young children do not use these skills in many situations because they trust their informants. Finally, the PRAGTICAL project has investigated how the young children’s epistemic trust guides their interpretation of new communicative acts.

From an institutional point of view, the PRAGTICAL project also led to the establishment of the Marc Jeannerod Institute of Cognitive Sciences' Infant Study Laboratory, and to the reintegration of its coordinator (O. Mascaro) into the French research area. The project PRAGTICAL has open many novel research perspectives, in particular the study of the social and epistemic bases of deference in infants, and their inter-individual variations.

Scientific articles resulting from the project:
- Mascaro, O., Morin, O., & Sperber, D. (2017). Optimistic expectations about communication explain children's difficulties in hiding, lying, and mistrusting liars. Journal of Child Language, 44(5), 1041-1064. doi.org/10.1017/S0305000916000350
- Mascaro, O. & Sperber, D. (2016). Pragmatic inference in infancy. Proceedings of Trends in Experimental Pragmatics, 95-102.
- Mascaro, O., & Morin, O. (2015). Epistemology for Beginners: Two-to Five-Year-Old Children's Representation of Falsity. PloS one, 10(10), e0140658.
(4 other articles resulting from the project have been submitted; other articles are in preparation).

Humans have some faith in what is communicated to them, even when their informants are complete strangers, who could be mistaken or lying. Where does this trust come from? Although this question was raised more than two centuries ago (e.g. Hume, 1748; Reid, 1764), it remains largely unanswered, in great part because of a lack of appropriate empirical evidence. This project will capitalise on the tools of infancy research to probe the origins of human trust in communication in the first years of life. In the last ten years, great progress has been made in the study of preschoolers’ skepticism (for a review see e.g. Einav & Robinson, in press). Conversely, very little is known about the sources of trust in communication in infancy.

The overarching goal of this project is to investigate the building blocks, scope, and origins of human trust in communication, central to learning and cultural transmission. Its main objectives are (1) to decompose the expectations that are guiding infants’ interpretation and acceptance of communicated information, and study (2) how these different expectations develop and interact in the first years of life, (3) how they support human conception of knowledge and truth, (4) how they interact with the representation of others as agents with beliefs and goals, (5) how they interact with the formation of social relationships, and (6) to what extent these expectations are experience-dependent.

The project will focus on two sources of trust in communication: the assumptions of competence (TASK 1) and benevolence (TASK 2) that attach to communication. To this date, most research on the development of selective trust has been performed with preschoolers and older children. The kind of tests employed in these researches are generally far too complex to test human infants. To address this challenge, the project will rely on a combination of methods that allow to test pre-verbal subjects: Violation of expectation, interactive behavioural studies, and eye-tracking. The project will also turn to the very early developmental origins and limits of infants’ trust in communication (TASK 3). Studies will assess the effect of maturation by comparing the developmental windows of early trust in communication in pre-term and full-term infants. Moreover experimental studies will probe the development of infants’ selective trust before one year of age, to assess the effect of experience in a controlled setting.

This inherently multidisciplinary research program will be completed at the L2C2 (CNRS UMR5304) in collaboration with philosophers, experts on adult pragmatics, communication and linguistic, and specialists of infants’ social cognition. Each task, and the theoretical integration of results accross tasks will be achieved by distinct teams of complementary experts, composed of researchers at the host institute and external collaborators:

Task 1 : COMPETENCE TEAM (A. Kovács, O. Mascaro, J.-B. Van der Henst)
Task 2: BENEVOLENCE TEAM (O. Mascaro, H. Mercier, A. Reboul, D. Sperber)
Task 3: ORIGINS TEAM (G. Csibra, O. Mascaro, A. Reboul)
Task 4: THEORIES TEAM (O. Mascaro, O. Morin, A. Reboul, D. Sperber)

This research structure will create a core network of international collaborators working the origins of human communicative abilities, in particular creating a long term partnership between the host institute, and the Cognitive Science Department of Central European University, one of the top research infrastructures working on social cognition in Europe. The project will further reinforce the host institution by making its babylab fully operational, and by opening novel relevant research fields, that are complementary to existing research at the host institute in the domain of pragmatics, reasoning, and argumentation. Lastly, the project will support the reintegration of its coordinator (Olivier Mascaro) to the French research area, by setting the conditions for its permanent recruitement at the host institute.

Project coordination

Olivier Mascaro (Laboratoire sur le Langage, le Cerveau et la Cognition)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.

Partner

L2C2 Laboratoire sur le Langage, le Cerveau et la Cognition

Help of the ANR 329,991 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: June 2015 - 36 Months

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