Reasoning about Instrumental and Communicative Agency in Human Infancy

György Gergely, Pierre Jacob

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

25 Citations (Scopus)


Theoretical rationality and practical rationality are, respectively, properties of an individual's belief system and decision system. While reasoning about instrumental actions complies with practical rationality, understanding communicative actions complies with the principle of relevance. Section 2 reviews the evidence showing that young infants can reason about an agent's instrumental action by representing her subjective motivations and the episodic contents of her epistemic states (including false beliefs). Section 3 reviews the evidence showing special sensitivity in young human infants to some ostensive behavioral signals encoding an agent's communicative intention. We also address the puzzle of imitative learning of novel means actions by 1-year olds and argue that it can be resolved only by assuming that the infant construes the model's demonstration as a communicative, not an instrumental, action. Section 4 reviews the evidence for natural pedagogy, a species-unique social communicative learning mechanism that exploits human infants' receptivity to ostensive-communicative signals and enables infants to acquire kind-wide generalizations from the nonverbal demonstrations of communicative agents. We argue that the essentialist bias that has been shown to be involved in children's concepts of natural kinds also applies to infants' concepts of artifacts. We further examine how natural pedagogy may also boost inductive learning in human infancy.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAdvances in Child Development and Behavior
PublisherAcademic Press Inc.
Number of pages36
Publication statusPublished - 2012

Publication series

NameAdvances in Child Development and Behavior
ISSN (Print)0065-2407


  • Cognitive opacity
  • Imitative learning
  • Kind concepts
  • Natural pedagogy
  • Ostensive communication
  • Practical rationality
  • Psychological essentialism
  • Reasoning
  • Relevance
  • Trust-based deferential beliefs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience

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  • Cite this

    Gergely, G., & Jacob, P. (2012). Reasoning about Instrumental and Communicative Agency in Human Infancy. In Advances in Child Development and Behavior (pp. 59-94). (Advances in Child Development and Behavior; Vol. 43). Academic Press Inc..