Psychological VS Mechanical Causality in Infant Understanding

As scientists we think that everything is mediated by physical causality of some sort, including our interactions with other people. There are, in fact, light and sound waves that go from one person to another even if we can't see them with the naked eye. But from our everyday point of view, it appears we are able to influence people without any direct physical contact at all. (It's probably that fact that makes telepathy seem plausible to so many people.) After all, just looking at someone across a crowaea room can set quite a dramatic chain of events in motion. We influence people psychologically by communicating, talking, gesturing, and making faces—we don't have to touch them. In fact, trying to physically manipulate other people to get them to do what we want is usually quite counterproductive, if not actually illegal. Psychological causality is often our most powerful tool.

Psychological causality is particularly important for babies, not only because they can't push things around as much as we can, but because they have to get other people to satisfy most of their needs. Wnen very young babies first try to influence the external world, they may not differentiate between physical and psychological causality, and this may lead to the apparently magical and irrational quality of many of their actions. They make the mistake of using psychological means to try to influence the physical world. Smiling and cooing can get a reaction from Mom even though you're not physically attached to her. It's as if they think maybe they'll have the same effect on the mobile.

In fact, much of what we think of as magical, irrational thinking in adult life may really reflect the same sort of confusion between physical and psychological causality. Shamans and magicians say special words, wave their hands in particular ways, and take care in choosing particular garments in order to influence events in their world. This may seem odd and irrational, but when you think about it, all of us do this when we're trying to influence other people (well, two out of three of us for the garments). If you can use words to get someone into a white-hot rage or into bed with you, why not try to use words to give someone a disease or make her pregnant? "Magical procedures" of this type, whether in children or in adults, are, in fact, ineffective, but believing in them may not really be irrational—just mistaken. They may be based on a confusion about where psychological causality leaves s off and ordinary physical causality begins.

By the time babies are about a year old, there seems to be an important change in their understanding of causes. They seem to have learned something about the differences between psychological and physical causality, and they understand more about how physical causation works. They also know something about how events or objects can influence each other. Younger babies can learn to produce an action that has an effect in the world. For example, they can pull a cloth that has a toy on top of it toward them. The peculiarities and limitations of that understanding become clear, though, when you present the babies with a new, slightly different problem by putting the toy to one side of the cloth. The babies pull on the cloth just as intently and are startled to see that nothing happens, just as they keep kicking even when the ribbon is disconnected. By the end of the first year, though, babies no longer make this mistake; they seem to know right away that the object has to be on top of the cloth. They won't pull the cloth if the object is to one side of it. (In fact, they may give the experimenter a definite "Are you kidding?" look.) This greater understanding of physical causality means their actions look much less magical and are much more effective. This allows them to really plan and scheme and use physical objects as tools.


Babies learn the differences between psychological and physical causality, before this they tend to make the mistake of using psychological means to influence the physical world... Magical thinking in adults may be a holdover of this habit.

Folksonomies: babies development magical thinking psychological mechanical

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 The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Gopnik , Meltzoff , Kuhl (2001-01-01), The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind, Harper Paperbacks, Retrieved on 2011-07-06
Folksonomies: education parenting pregnancy babies children infancy