Projects

The Max Planck Research Group “Naturalistic Social Cognition” conducts research projects investigating the behavioral strategies and social learning rules infants and young children use to acquire information about plants. Our broader aim is to understand how evolution builds learning mechanisms to acquire certain types of information over the course of development. Our research is organized into three main areas. Please click on the links below to learn more about our research projects.

This research area examines whether infants possess behavioral strategies to avoid the type of harm that plants can cause. Plants produce a variety of different defenses to protect themselves from herbivores, including toxic chemical compounds and dangerous physical structures like thorns and stinging hairs. Therefore, the primary dangers plants pose to humans are poisoning and physical injury. However, a dangerous plant can only inflict serious damage if one approaches it and makes physical contact with it by, for example, grabbing it or consuming part of it. As a result, a simple behavioral strategy of minimizing physical contact with plants can be quite effective in minimizing exposure to plant dangers. [more]
This research area focuses on how individuals acquire and utilize information about plants over the course of ontogeny. Trial and error learning, in which each individual directly samples different plant species and experiences the consequences, is not an effective way to learn about plants. Given that many plants are poisonous, this strategy could result in frequent illness and perhaps even death. Therefore, we propose that human cognitive architecture contains specialized social learning rules that facilitate the safe acquisition of information about plants from more knowledgeable individuals, and enable that learned information to be used in new circumstances. [more]
These projects aim to explore how the plant-related behavioral avoidance strategies and social learning processes we discovered in the laboratory unfold in more naturalistic settings. To do this, we take our studies out of the lab and into the garden. [more]
In addition to our primary research program, we conduct studies investigating other areas of cognitive development in infancy. The goal of these studies is to investigate core aspects of the cognitive architecture infants use to make sense of their physical and social worlds and to test whether these foundational cognitive abilities persist from infancy into adulthood. [more]
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