Ten-month-old infants infer the value of goals from the costs of actions

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Science  24 Nov 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6366, pp. 1038-1041
DOI: 10.1126/science.aag2132

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Ranking valuations on the basis of observed choices

Obliged to make a choice between two goals, we evaluate the benefits of achieving the goals compared with the costs of the actions required before deciding what to do. This seems perfectly straightforward, and it is unsurprising to learn that we can also apply this reasoning to others; that is, someone that we see choosing a goal that requires a more costly action must value that goal more highly. What is remarkable, as Liu et al. report, is that preverbal children can reason in this same fashion.

Science, this issue p. 1038


Infants understand that people pursue goals, but how do they learn which goals people prefer? We tested whether infants solve this problem by inverting a mental model of action planning, trading off the costs of acting against the rewards actions bring. After seeing an agent attain two goals equally often at varying costs, infants expected the agent to prefer the goal it attained through costlier actions. These expectations held across three experiments that conveyed cost through different physical path features (height, width, and incline angle), suggesting that an abstract variable—such as “force,” “work,” or “effort”—supported infants’ inferences. We modeled infants’ expectations as Bayesian inferences over utility-theoretic calculations, providing a bridge to recent quantitative accounts of action understanding in older children and adults.

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