Once a Frog-Lover, Always a Frog-Lover?: Infants’ Goal Generalization Is Influenced by the Nature of Accompanying Speech

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The ability to interpret choices as enduring preferences that generalize beyond the immediate situation gives adults a powerful means of predicting and explaining others’ behavior. How do infants come to recognize that current choices can be driven by generalizable preferences? Although infants can encode others’ actions in terms of goals (Woodward, 1998), there is evidence that 10-month-olds still fail to generalize goal information presented in one environment to an event sequence occurring in a new environment (Sommerville & Crane, 2009). Are there some circumstances in which infants interpret others’ goals as generalizable across environments? We investigate whether the vocalizations a person produces while selecting an object in one room influences infants’ generalization of the goal to a new room. Ten-month-olds did not spontaneously generalize the actor’s goal, but did generalize the actor’s goal when the actor initially accompanied her object selection with a statement of preference. Infants’ generalization was not driven by the attention-grabbing features of the statement or the mere use of language, as they did not generalize when the actor used matched nonspeech vocalizations or sung speech. Infants interpreted the goal as person-specific, as they did not generalize the choice to a new actor. We suggest that the referential specificity of accompanying speech vocalizations influences infants’ tendency to interpret a choice as personal rather than situational.

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