When Are Children Socially Capable to Act in Joint Action Settings?

Seminar Paper, 2011
8 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction
1.1 What is joint action?
A. Shared goal
B. Shared representation
C. Prediction
D. Coordination

2 What children understand of Joint Actions
2.1 Motivation
2.2 Sharing goals and intentions
2.3 Joint commitments
2.4 Monitoring and Coordination
2.5 Language and Prelinguistic Communication

3 Conclusions
3.1 Future Prospects

4 References


The ability of acting jointly to achieve common goals seems to be distinctively of human nature and is important in order to take part in social life. However, when this crucial capability for everyday life develops is a field quite new to and currently rather untouched by cognitive and neuronal sciences, only a few studies deal with joint action settings in which infants of one or two years are supposed to act in cooperation with an adult or even with a same-aged peer. This paper, therefore, aims at introducing some of these studies and their outcomes in order to discuss later on at which age children possess the social and cognitive skills needed to perform successfully in joint action settings.

Keywords - joint action, acting together, cooperation, infants, social capabilities, social skills.

1 Introduction

Several scientists argue that we act in joint action settings every day of our lives (Sebanz et al., 2006), hence this ability is crucial for human beings´ success in their social fabric. Coordination, for example, is needed when feeding a child, when carrying objects together with another person, when moving through the traffic and lots of other daily routines. Sometimes, we even are forced to act jointly so we can reach goals we would not be able to realise individually (Sebanz et al., 2003). But this social act of collaboration requires several prerequisites in order to be successful, which are not present at birth, however develop in early childhood.

When observing babies and toddlers and from personal experiences with them we know that in their first year there is only little joint action, neither with adults nor with other children. So the interesting question for cognitive and neuronal scientists is what qualifies children to act jointly and at what age this social ability emerges. Various studies have already been conducted, which will be presented later on in this paper and will help to at least approach possible answers to the questions posed above.

1.1 What is joint action?

Before dealing with joint actions in infancy, this section will provide a definition in order to clarify what joint action is and will give a short overview of the special skills needed for cooperating with others.

Sebanz et al. (2006) define joint action as “any form of social interaction whereby two or more individuals coordinate their actions in space and time to bring about a change in the environment”. This means that any activity involving more than one person can be regarded as a form of joint action, the easiest being probably where only two people are acting together, getting the more difficult the more individuals are participating (for more details on inter-group research see Chia-Chin Tsai et al., 2010), as several cognitive demands are to be met in order to complete a satisfactory joint action task.

A. Shared goal

According to Carpenter (2009) cited after Tomasello at al. (2005) a shared goal is a distinctive indicator for joint actions, and this goal should be represented by both agents. Bratman´s definition even demands a shared intentionality (Carpenter, 2009), meaning that both participants have to perform the action together on purpose and towards a commonly established result.

B. Shared representation

Shared representation is not always necessary, but generally very useful (Vesper et al., 2010). When collaborating towards a common goal, one should not only know what one´s own task is but should also be aware of what the other agent´s task is and under which condition he/she will fulfil it. Sharing representations, however, seems to be an automatic operation, and humans represent others´ tasks even when it is counterproductive to do so (Sebanz et al., 2006). Sharing task representation also triggers mechanisms supporting prediction, which is another important factor for acting jointly towards a common goal.

C. Prediction

In order to cooperate successfully, one has to take into account not only one´s own actions and their results, but also those of the other agent(s). The ability to predict what the other is going to do is supported by monitoring his or her acting as well as external cues like body movements, pointing gestures or gaze. Gaze following, for example, focuses both agents on the same object(s), establishing joint attention. This is especially important for children, as shared attention enhances their concentration on relevant aspects of their environment and is a significant factor in the development of imitation, social cognition and language (Böckler et al., 2011). Prediction furthermore means to figure out what others have in mind and to compare the actual outcomes to the predicted ones in order to integrate others´ intentions and effects of others´ actions into one´s own action planning. In some tasks, the prediction of timing is essential as well, and joint action coordination works out the better the more precise the agents can foresee the timing of each other´s actions (Vesper et al., 2010).

D. Coordination

Individual actions have to be coordinated, and for some tasks it is even necessary to divide labor among the agents so that a common goal can be achieved. As coordination smoothers, which simplify action coordination might the following be useful: (i) modulation of one´s own behaviour, which means to make one´s own actions more predictable or to adjust oneself to the other´s operation temporally and spatially; (ii) applying coordination signals, which serve as a means of regulation, like for example conventional musical scores and traffic signs or even non conventional signals like conveying information through body movements and (iii) forms of synchronisation such as a common rhythm, which enables temporal predictions (Vesper et al., 2010).

These cognitive abilities, which are required at least at a very low level in order to fulfil simple joint action tasks, are very much intertwined and therefore make it even more difficult, especially for younger children, to succeed in joint action settings, as we will see from the studies presented.

2 What children understand of Joint Actions

Although it seems hard to believe, already 1-year-old infants are socially and cognitively able to participate in joint action, as they can recognise others´ goals, possess a basic understanding of common knowledge and are even motivated to help and cooperate with others (Carpenter, 2009). Actually, from birth on infants are involved in different types of social interactions, mostly with their parents and other family members. Starting with mere face-to-face-interactions, answering eye contact and smiling, they develop more and more skills needed to join more collaborative activities.

2.1 Motivation

Joint action presupposes, as discussed previously, a motivation to work together and to support each other towards a common goal. This is something that obviously exists even in younger children according to the studies of Warneken and Tomasello (2007). Already 12-month-old children realise when others are in distress and show their concern by trying to comfort them (Eisenberg and Fabes, 1998, cited by Warneken and Tomasello, 2007) or trying to help by pointing to objects someone seems to be looking for (Liszkowski et al., 2006, cited by Warneken and Tomasello, 2007). At about 15 months children are able to represent the goal someone else is trying to reach and at 18 months children may act by instrumental help without being rewarded (Warneken and Tomasello, 2007), which leads to the assumption that they act out of an inner motivation just for the sake of supporting the other without thinking of their own success.

The study of Warneken and Tomasello (2007) dealt with testing the behaviour of twenty-four 14-month-old infants in helping settings on the one hand and in cooperation settings on the other hand, expecting that individuals who were more likely to help would also be better cooperation partners. Each child had to perform six helping tasks like picking up a clothespin or a marker that was “accidentally dropped by the experimenter or even more difficult ones like opening cabinet doors for the experimenter, resulting in the majority of children helping across several trials, and even very quickly. However, they mainly helped in the easier tasks by handing over desired objects, whereas older children of about 18 months reliably help in all six tasks as shown in previous studies by Warneken and Tomasello (2006, cited by Warneken and Tomasello, 2007). Still these findings reinforce the assumption that spontaneous altruistic motivation is already apparent at 14 months of age. Furthermore they examined the children in cooperation tasks and recorded how children reacted to interruptions of the joint action through their partner, the experimenter to finally try to figure out correlations between the behaviour in cooperation and in helping tasks. The outcome was that children with a higher helping rate across all tasks reached a higher level of coordination in at least one of the cooperation tasks.

Warneken and Tomasello (2007) draw the conclusion that helping is cognitively an easier act than cooperation, as it only requires understanding what the other person´s goal is, but cooperating involves forming a shared goal and meshing plans for action (Bratman, 1992, cited by Warneken and Tomasello, 2007). Therefore they assume that helping behaviours ontogenetically pave the way for cooperative activities.

2.2 Sharing goals and intentions

Studies prove that at about 1 year infants recognise the goals behind others´ actions and regard others´ behaviour as following rational plans. Moreover, even at an age of 9 months are they capable of using this knowledge to react appropriately in joint action settings, as Behne, Carpenter, Call and Tomasello (2005) found out. Their study observed infants´ differing responses to an adult being unable to hand them a toy (by accident) in contrast to an adult being not willing to give them a toy (purposefully). The fact that children were more patient in the first situation implies that they do already see the others´ intentions underlying the obvious act and its consequences. (Carpenter, 2009)


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When Are Children Socially Capable to Act in Joint Action Settings?
Donau-Universität Krems  (Department für interaktive Medien und Bildungstechnologien)
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joint action, acting together, cooperation, infants, social capabilities, social skills
Quote paper
Bianca Lehner (Author), 2011, When Are Children Socially Capable to Act in Joint Action Settings?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/308719


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