Understanding The Teleological Stance in Young Infants

Essay, 2014
9 Pages, Grade: 1,7







Understanding The Teleological Stance and The Rationality Principle in Young Infants


Very few things happen without a reason. People are in constant search of meaning behind actions of others, looking for purpose and goal-directedness in every behavior. Infants too have this outstanding ability. They can interpret other’s goal-directed actions as early as 12-months-old. Unlike adults however, they do not understand that intentions, beliefs and desires are the actual driving force behind goal-directed actions. This notion develops only as they grow up. Rather, they make use of a special non-mentalistic interpretational system: the Teleological Stance. As a result, infants interpret an action as goal-directed only if it satisfies two conditions: (1) an action must function to realize goals and (2) it must do so by the most efficient means available. This is known as the Rationality Principle, the main mechanism by which the Teleological Stance works.

Keywords:Goal-directedness, Teleological Stance, Rationality Principle

Abstract: 134 words

Paper: 11.260 characters

In our everyday life, we almost always seem to find an explanation for the behavior of our friends, partners and close relatives. We take into consideration their personal characteristics, their mood, desires and beliefs and we adjust our theories accordingly. We find this process quite easy, and we never come to think about the underlying mechanism. When searching for an explanation about somebody’s behavior, we unknowingly are trying to put ourselves in his or her shoes. When doing so, we are taking a “mentalistic stance”. This simply means that we seek to find answers by looking at others’ believes, desires and intentions.

One-year-old infants are also capable of interpreting and drawing inferences about other’s actions. Unlike us, they do not possess this complex representational system that allows them a comprehensive understanding of goal-directed actions. The full-fledged emergence of taking such a “mentalistic” stance seems a relatively late developmental achievement, emerging around 4 years of age (Dennet, 1987, as cited in Gergely & Csibra, 2003).

Instead, one-year-olds apply a non-mentalistic representational system, the “teleological stance” (Gergely & Csibra, 2003) to come to the same conclusions as we do. The fundamental idea of the teleological stance is that infants, like us, can understand goal-directed actions. They just do it differently, by looking at the world in a more simplified way. One-year-old infants do not infer that people have intentions, beliefs and desires that lead to goal-oriented actions. Instead, they use a special kind of mechanism, “The Rationality Principle” to determine whether an action is goal-oriented or not. The Rationality Principle has two main assumptions. First: actions must function to realize goals, and second, they do so by the most efficient means available (Gergely & Csibra, 2003). If an action does not satisfy either of the two conditions, infants would not interpret it as goal-directed. This achievement is a highly sophisticated feat for their age.


An experiment done by Gergely, Nádasdy, Csibra, & Biro (1993) provided independent empirical support that infants were capable of taking the teleological stance as early as 12 months old. In their study, Gergely et al. assigned infants to 2 groups (Rational Group and Non-Rational group). Infants in the Rational Group observed a habituation event, in which a small circle and a big circle were positioned at a distance from each other with a rectangular figure placed in between them (Fig. 1a). The big circle expands and then contracts, followed by the same expansion/contraction behavior of the small circle. These changes of state are known to provide the infants with direct cues, potentially indicating agency (Mandler, 1992). As the habituation event continues, the small circle tries to approach the large circle, following the shortest pathway that could connect them (Fig. 1b). However, the obstacle in between them blocks the path, and the small circle must make a jump (i.e. take the shortest and most efficient pathway to the goal) in order to overcome the situational constraint. In the Rational Group habituation event, both conditions of the Rationality Principle are satisfied. First, the action of the small circle functions to realize a goal (reaching the big circle), and second, the action of the small circle is executed in the most efficient means available (jumping over the obstacle). Therefore, the authors assumed that infants would take a teleological stance and interpret the behavior of the small circle as goal-directed.

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Fig. 1. Habituation event for the Rational Group.

The second group of infants (Non-Rational group) received a similar habituation event, in which the small circle and the big circle both exhibit the same behavior of expansion/contraction (Fig. 2a) The only difference here is that the rectangular figure is placed behind the small circle, and therefore does not block its path. The small circle once again tries to approach the big circle. It stops in the middle of the path, returns, and makes an unnecessary jump (Fig. 2b). This behavior satisfies the first condition of the rationality principle, because the action of the small circle functions to realize a goal (reaching the big circle). However, it does not satisfy the second condition, because the action is not executed in the shortest and most efficient means available (which in this case would be a simple straight line movement). Gergely et al. hypothesized that in the Non-Rational habituation event, infants would not take a teleological stance and therefore would not interpret the action of the small circle as goal-directed.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 2.Habituation event for the Non-Rational group

To put these hypotheses to the test, infants in both the Rational and Non-Rational group were presented with two test events (Fig. 3). Again, a small circle approaches a big circle, however, in this event there is no obstacle blocking the way. A New action (Fig. 3a) represents the shortest and most efficient means for reaching the end state, whereas the Old Action (Fig. 3b) represents an inefficient and unnecessary means. If 12-month-olds actually interpreted the action of the small circle as goal-directed, they would be able to make a prediction from the teleological stance about the future behavior of the small circle in this completely novel test event.

Let us first elaborate on the infants in the Rational Group condition. Since the behavior of the small circle in the habituation event (Fig. 1) satisfiedbothconditions of the Rationality Principle: actions function to realize an end-state and they do so in the most efficient way, infants would take the teleological stance and interpret the action of the small circle as goal-directed. When presented with the novel scenario, in which there is no rectangular object blocking the way, they should be able to predict that the small circle would choose the New Action for reaching its goal, because it is the most efficient way to do it. The Old Action should be quite surprising for them, because the movement of the small circle is unnecessary and against the Rationality Principle.


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Understanding The Teleological Stance in Young Infants
LMU Munich
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
520 KB
Goal-directedness, Teleological Stance, Rationality Principle, baby, infant, piaget
Quote paper
Vladislav Tsekov (Author), 2014, Understanding The Teleological Stance in Young Infants, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/356506


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