What Does Alison Gopnik Teach Us About How Kids Think?

alison gopnik what do babies think summary

Posted October 2019 by John Sherk, B.S.W., B.S. Bible; MDiv.; 9 updates since. Reading time: 6 min. Reading level: Grade 6+. Questions on Alison Gopnik? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

Have you ever watched a baby and wondered, ‘What is going inside that little head?’ One of the joys of life comes when we watch infants interact with their world and learn from it. And then to see how those interactions change and develop over time. Alison Gopnik has spent the better part of her career as a child psychologist studying this very phenomenon. After all, if we can learn how infants learn, that might teach us about how we learn and understand our world. If you’re unfamiliar with Gopnik’s work, you can find a quick summary of it in her Ted Talk “What Do Babies Think?”

Broccoli Crackers

It has long been believed that the minds of infants and toddlers are irrational and egocentric. Infants do not possess the capabilities to consider how other people think or feel. And because they’re still learning about the world, their attempts to negotiate with the world around them appear illogical.

This had been the consensus among psychologists until the past few decades. But Alison Gopnik’s landmark “broccoli and crackers” study arrived as one key piece to dismantle that narrative. Here’s what she did in the study:

  • She presented a bowl of broccoli and a bowl of crackers to children 15-18 months old.
  • On their own, nearly all children chose the crackers for themselves. Unsurprisingly.
  • However, then the researcher would taste the broccoli, and accompany that with expressions of delight. Then, the researcher would taste the crackers and concomitantly express disgust.
  • Next, the researcher would ask, “Can you give me some?”
  • In response, the 18-month olds would think for a second and give the researcher broccoli.
  • Meanwhile, the 15-month olds would sit puzzled for quite a while until handing the researcher some crackers.

What does this demonstrate? It becomes apparent that at 18 months, people can consider the preferences of others and respond to fulfill others’ desires. In other words, at 18 months, we start to realize that not everyone likes the same things or has the same ideas. We learn that we can do things to help others. Also, we learn these profound ideas at some point between 15 and 18 months old. We can see how her broccoli and crackers study helps dismantle the old way of thinking.

What Do Babies Think? Ted Talk:  Longer Childhood = Better Brain

After outlining her broccoli and crackers study, Gopnik poses this question: “Why do children learn so much, and how is it possible to learn so much in such a short time?”

To answer this question, Gopnik makes some observations from evolution. Generally, the longer childhood takes place in a species, the bigger the species’ brain is compared to their bodies. And therefore, the smarter and more mentally flexible the species. Contrasting New Caledonian crows to chickens, Gopnik points out that the crows endure a much longer period of dependency on their parents, while chickens develop much quicker. The intelligence of these crows far outweighs that of the chicken. The crows can learn and adapt to different environments, while chickens are pretty much only good at pecking grain. Consequently, it appears that childhood development exists as a period in which the creature remains protected and needs constant provision so that its brain can focus its energies on the task of learning. Childhood exists to learn. That is why crows (and humans) have such lengthy childhoods, while chickens do not.

What does all of this tell us about childhood development? If our helplessness and constant need for safety and provision during childhood indicates that childhood exists for learning, then what happens when a child experiences trauma? If a child does not grow up with safety and consistent care, how might that impact their development? How might that impact their brain elasticity or their ability to learn from new experiences?

What Do Babies Think? Ted Talk:  When the Student Becomes the Teacher

As Gopnik continues her Ted Talk, she moves from addressing why children learn so much during childhood to how that learning is possible. She introduces this section by comparing infants to the Research and Development department, while adults serve as the Production and Marketing team. Infants spend all their efforts and energy learning so that when they’re adults, they can apply what they’ve learned in the world.

While we’ve long thought that infants and children were terrible at logical deductions, Gopnik aims to prove the exact opposite. Her broccoli and crackers experiments stand as one example. In her “What Do Babies Think?” Ted Talk, Gopnik demonstrates how children are better at the scientific method and Bayesian probability theory than adults. Children express this through play.

Through multiple experiments, Gopnik demonstrates that since children have greater mental flexibility, elasticity, and creativity than adults, they’re better at testing hypotheses than adults. They do so intuitively through play. She illustrates this through an experiment in which a little box lights up if toy blocks are placed on it in a certain pattern. The child tests five hypotheses in a matter of minutes and eventually figures it out.

How are children so adept at this? Gopnik proposes that adult brains are like spotlights: they can focus really well on one particular thing and glean minute details from it. Yet, children’s brains are like lanterns:  they focus on everything at once. Why? Because virtually every experience is new for a child. Their minds remain open and flexible so that they can take in what they can.

Adults can have this same openness and pliability when they’re in love, go to a new country, or even drink lots of coffee. On this account, Gopnik quips, “What’s it like being a baby? It’s like being in love in Paris for the first time after you’ve had three double espressos. That’s a fantastic way to be, but it does tend to leave you waking up crying at 3 a.m.!”

Thinking Like A Child is Good For Your Brain

When’s the last time you had a new experience? Our brains tend to resist adaptability when we become too ingrained in our routine, too comfortable with the same patterns, same ways of thinking, same mental work, same routines. This does not encourage learning. After all, isn’t this why we forget so much of what we learned in school? As the old adage goes, “Use it or lose it.”

If we want to continue to learn, grow, and have flexible minds, then we need to be exposed to new experiences and new ways of thinking. Imagine what this could do in our political climate. Or in our offices, families, or the world. Imagine how this might encourage reconciliation and mutual understanding. As Gopnik says, if we want to have “open-mindedness, open learning, imagination, creativity, and innovation, then maybe at least some of the time we should be getting the adults to start thinking more like children.”

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