The findings may shed light on the social abilities that differentiate us from our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, said study author H. Clark Barrett, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. The study used a form of the false-belief test, one of the few cognitive tasks that young children, but not primates, can do.
Humans are "very good at inferring other people's mental states: their emotions, their desires and, in this case, their knowledge," Barrett said. "So it could play an important role in cultural transmission and social learning."
In the classic test of children's understanding called the false-belief task, one person comes into a room and puts an object (such as a pair of scissors) into a hiding place. A second person then comes in and puts the scissors into his pocket, unbeknownst to the first individual. When that first person returns, someone will ask the child, "Where do you think the first person will look for the scissors?"
The task is tricky because the children need to have a theory of mind, or an ability to understand other people's perspectives, in this case that of the individual who didn't see the scissors being retrieved by another.
By ages 4 to 7, most children in Western countries can answer that the first person will look in the original hiding place, because the individual doesn't know the scissors have moved. But children across the globe tend to give that answer at different ages.
However, past work showed that if researchers don't ask babies the question, but instead follow the infants' eye movements, the children seem to understand the concept much earlier. Barrett and his colleagues wondered whether cultural differences in dealing with adults could be obscuring the amazing cognitive leap children were taking.
Image: Baby and adult, via Shutterstock