In November 2010, an informal on-line workshop gathered psychologists and philosophers, to discuss the implications of a new theory of human communication and cultural transmission. Participants were György Gergely, Olivier Morin, Dan Sperber, Marion Vorms and Davie Yoon.

Pedagogy week starts today!

This week, the Cognition and Culture blog will be hosting a series of posts discussing György Gergely and Gergely Csibra's theory of Pedagogy, a theory of communication and cultural transmission that ICCI bloggers love to discuss (see these two posts by P. Jacob, and this one by György Gergely). This theory is one of the most exciting things that happened to the study of communication recently - because it is supported by gorgeous experiments, but above all because of its theoretical ambitions.

This week, Pedagogy theorists will reply to our bloggers' critics. Tomorrow, Marion Vorms will question the way the theory explains a famous effect in developmental psychology; on Wednesday, I will ask some questions about the meaning of their "Genericity Bias". György Gergely was kind enough to consider our arguments at great length, in a series of three posts - one on referentiality (Thursday), one on genericity (Friday), and one on the A-not-B task, which will close the week on Saturday. Comments are open on our posts, and we'll reply to György's replies as they appear. Of course, everyone is free to comment, this week and after.

Like many authors who wrote about communication (such as Michael Tomasello or Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson), Gergely and Csibra believe in the existence of specifically human cognitive capacities that allow us to communicate. However, they differ from most other theories of communication in one important way.

Read more: Pedagogy week starts today!

Natural pedagogy and A-not-B tasks

This post is part of our 'Pedagogy theory week' series.

Monday   Tuesday  Wednesday   Thursday   Friday   Saturday

For a very short presentation of pedagogy theory, see the Monday post. Here, Marion Vorms describes and discusses the Pedagogical treatment of a famous psychological effect. György Gergely will discuss her critiques on Saturday.

The so-called "perseverative search error" (or "A-not-B error") was first observed by Piaget. A-not-B errors are mistakes performed by infants close to 1 year of age. The standard experimental set up highlighting these errors consists in a hide-and-search task, divided into two phases. During the first phase (habituation, or "A-trials"), the demonstrator repeatedly hides an object under one (A) of two containers (A and B) in full view of the infant, who is allowed to retrieve the object after each hiding event. After this habituation period, the demonstrator hides the object under container B (still in full view of the infant). During this second phase (test trials, or "B-trials"), infants frequently look for the object under container A. Various explanations have been given of this phenomenon, appealing to deficits in inhibitory control over the motor response involved in searching at location A, to constraints on short-term memory, to attentional biases, or even to motor simulation of the observed hiding action at location A through activation of the mirror neuron system. It is worth noting that most of these explanations share the assumption that A-not-B errors have more to do with the development of action, rather than with the development of object representation — they all reject Piaget's original explanation in terms of infants' incomplete understanding of object permanence (indeed, there is now strong evidence for object permanence in 2-months-olds, as Renée Baillargeon for instance has shown).

As often, natural pedagogy's advocates' strategy consists in designing a modified version of the classical experimental paradigm (here, A-not-B tasks), by varying the absence or presence of ostensive-communicative cues, thus highlighting infants' differential responses according to the context (ostensive-communicative or not). So far, indeed, A-not-B errors had always been highlighted in ostensive-communicative contexts.

In their 2008 paper, Topál et al. hypothesize that perseverative search error might (at least partially) be due to a pragmatic misinterpretation of the nature of the conveyed information.

Read more: Natural pedagogy and A-not-B tasks

Is human communication biased?

This post is part of our 'Pedagogy theory week' series.

Monday  Tuesday   Wednesday  Thursday  Friday  Saturday

For a very short presentation of pedagogy theory, see the Monday post. This one is about the genericity bias. You can read György's reply on this topic on Friday. According to Pedagogy theory, we expect communication to teach us something general about a thing or an action : what kind of object, or what kind of action it is. Yet the theory makes room for the fact that not all communicative actions are generic. Communicators know that, and when communication is not generic, they know better than to cling to their expectations of genericity. Still, according to Pedagogy theory, we are biased to treat communication as generic; what does that mean?

Read more: Is human communication biased?

György Gergely replies to Marion Vorms and Olivier Morin

This post is part of our 'Pedagogy theory week' series.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday

For a very short presentation of pedagogy theory, see the Monday post. In this post, György Gergely starts to reply to Marion Vorms and Olivier Morin's comments of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

In their posts to kick off Natural Pedagogy Week, Olivier Morin and Marion Vorms both raise important - and in many ways converging – questions about some of the basic assumptions of natural pedagogy theory, the recent hypothesis proposed by Gergő Csibra and myself about the functional nature of preverbal infants' innate preparedness to be engaged in ostensive referential communication.

The empirical basis for the NP proposal consists of recent studies demonstrating in a number of task domains that young preverbal infants assign qualitatively different referential interpretations to the same object-directed intentional actions when accompanied by ostensive communicative signals than when seen performed without such cues in a non-communicative third-person observational context. Based on such evidence, NP theory argues for the following proposals:

- Innate sensitivity to ostensive signals: Human infants show evolved sensitivity to a set of behavioural cues (such as direct eye-contact, motherese, or contingent reactivity) that are pre-wired to induce recognition of communicative intention in the other;

- Ostensive signals induce a 'Presumption of relevance': Ostensive cues trigger a presumption of relevance in their infant addressees, an expectation that the other's communicative manifestation will convey new and relevant information to them (the informative or referential intention)

- Ostensive signals induce referential expectation: Ostensive cues activate a referential expectation in infants who will follow the other's referential deictic gestures to target to infer the referential content of the other's informative intention;

- Ostensive signals trigger a Genericity Bias of referential interpretation:  Ostensive cues induce a Genericity Bias in infants: a default expectation that – unless further communicative and/or contextual information is made available to specify the intended referential scope of the manifested information to be more narrow – the communicative act is assumed to convey generic (rather than episodic) information that is generalizable beyond the 'here-and-now' of the referential situation to other contexts, other agents other actions of the same kind, or other instances of the generic object kind that the particular referent belongs to.

Olivier and Marion both seem to welcome the empirical evidence that support Natural Pedagogy as a significant step towards understanding the nature of humans' evolved capacity for ostensive communication.

Read more: György Gergely replies to Marion Vorms and Olivier Morin

György Gergely on genericity

This post is part of our 'Pedagogy theory week' series.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday

For a very short presentation of pedagogy theory, see the Monday post. In this post, György Gergely replies to Marion and Olivier's concerns about the notion of a "Genericity Bias" (see in particular the Wednesday post).

"... overly generic misinterpretations represent an acceptably low cost incurred by the powerful inferential cultural learning system of Natural Pedagogy when compared to the high benefit gained in cognitive relevance provided by the possibility it affords – implemented through the Genericity Bias – for extracting and fast-learning relevant and generalizable cultural knowledge about referent kinds even from single communicative manifestations that employ deictically identified particular referents only. We like to think of the ostensively induced A-not-B search error as a sort of 'conceptual illusion' – the "illusion of being taught" – that is comparable to perceptual illusions that demonstrate the existence of a pre-wired interpretive mechanism of perceptual inference through its rare malfunctioning under specific input conditions."

Read more: György Gergely on genericity

György Gergely on the A-not-B task

This post is part of our 'Pedagogy theory week' series.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday

For a very short presentation of pedagogy theory, see the Monday post. In this post, György Gergely replies to Marion's Tuesday post on the A-not-B task.

"I don't agree with Marion that Natural Pedagogy theory should formulate the Genericity Bias so that it should somehow spell out and specify the particular level of genericity, the degree of width of referential scope, or the specific content types that the infant's referential interpretation of different ostensive communicative acts will arrive at. Vagueness with regards to specifying genericity is not a weakness of Natural Pedagogy theory (...) the level of genericity arrived at any given act of ostensive communication is a matter of pragmatic inference that is based on the available communicative and contextual information..."

Read more: György Gergely on the A-not-B task

Additional information