Funded Grants

Cognitive Foundations of Distinctively Human Social Learning

Learning does not occur in isolation. From parent-child interactions to formal pedagogy, humans learn in rich, diverse social contexts. While many nonhuman species learn from observing their conspecifics, only humans engage in a range of epistemic practices that actively recruit their conspecifics; by querying and interpreting information from others and providing information for others, humans incrementally build knowledge over generations, and even create cultural institutions (e.g., schools) to facilitate this process. What makes human learning so distinctive, powerful and effective? My research addresses this question by studying the cognitive mechanisms that support social learning.

A basic premise that guides my research is that our understanding of the physical world develops in tandem with our understanding of the social world. Successfully learning about both requires the integration of a host of cognitive faculties, which may have different origins and developmental trajectories. Thus a major goal of my research program is to identify the core components of cognition that underlie how we learn and help others learn, and explain how they give rise to distinctively human epistemic practices that naturally manifest in early childhood.

Yet, learning means more than acquiring knowledge about the external world; building a coherent, positive self-representation is one of the most important challenges in early learning. Even though we recognize the importance of self-concept in cultivating curiosity, persistence, and resilience, little is known about how children learn about the inner world (i.e., the self) and the role of early experiences. My current proposal is that humans, starting early in life, (1) acquire new knowledge from others by drawing powerful inferences that go beyond the evidence, and (2) share their own knowledge by generating evidence that helps others learn; critically, (3) these epistemic practices naturally manifest not only as we learn and communicate about the external world, but also about the inner world.

Using a combination of developmental and computational approaches, my research is making systematic progress to provide support for this idea. Even young children actively interpret and communicate information about the world and themselves, and in turn, their growing knowledge about the world and the desire to construct a positive self-concept modulate their behaviors as learners and as teachers.

These results challenge the traditional view that social learning primarily involves one-way transmission of information, and that young children are passive recipients in this process; it is a cooperative, bidirectional exchange of information, and its richness and sophistication may be rooted in early-emerging cognitive capacities such as the ability to reason about others’ mental states and as well as their utilities.

Learning is a generative process that continues throughout the lifespan; the more we know, the more we want to know, and the better we can improve ourselves. By characterizing the cognitive foundations of social learning and the complex interplay between cognition and motivation, my research will provide key insights for a unified theory of human learning, and inspire better educational practices that can generate, sustain, and foster our drive to learn and help others learn.