Michael Tomasello

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Saxony, Germany

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Publications (598)2231.09 Total impact

  • Lucas P. Butler · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: Young children can in principle make generic inferences (e.g., “doffels are magnetic”) on the basis of their own individual experience. Recent evidence, however, shows that by 4 years of age children make strong generic inferences on the basis of a single pedagogical demonstration with an individual (e.g., an adult demonstrates for the child that a single “doffel” is magnetic). In the current experiments, we extended this to look at younger children, investigating how the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon are integrated with other aspects of inductive inference during early development. We found that both 2- and 3-year-olds used pedagogical cues to guide such generic inferences, but only so long as the “doffel” was linguistically labeled. In a follow-up study, 3-year-olds, but not 2-year-olds, continued to make this generic inference even if the word “doffel” was uttered incidentally and non-referentially in a context preceding the pedagogical demonstration, thereby simply marking the opportunity to learn about a culturally important category. By 3 years of age, then, young children show a remarkable ability to flexibly combine different sources of culturally relevant information (e.g., linguistic labeling, pedagogy) to make the kinds of generic inferences so central in human cultural learning.
    No preview · Article · May 2016 · Journal of Experimental Child Psychology
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    Marco F.H. Schmidt · Margarita Svetlova · Jana Johe · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: Recent research on distributive justice suggests that young children prefer equal distributions. But sometimes unequal distributions are justified, such as when some individuals deserve more than others based on merit, need, or agreed-upon rules. When and how do children start incorporating such factors in their distributive decisions? Three-, 5-, and 8-year-old children (N= 72) had the opportunity to allocate several items to two individuals. One individual was neutral and the other provided a reason why she should be favored. Three of these reasons were legitimate (based on merit, need, or agreed-upon rules) whereas a fourth was idiosyncratic ("I just want more."). We found that with age, children's equality preference diminished and their acceptance of various reasons for privileged treatment increased. It was not until 8 years, however, that they differentiated between legitimate and idiosyncratic reasons for inequality. These findings suggest that children's sense of distributive justice develops from an early equality preference to a more flexible understanding of the basic normative reasons that inequality may, in some cases, be just.
    Full-text · Article · Mar 2016 · Cognitive Development
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    Marco F.H. Schmidt · Susanne Hardecker · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: Human institutional practices often involve competition within a cooperative structure of mutually accepted rules. In a competitive game, for instance, we not only expect adherence to the rules of the game but also expect an opponent who tries to win and, thus, follows a rational game-playing strategy. We had 3- and 5-year-olds (N=48) play for a prize against an opponent (a puppet) who played either rationally (trying to win) or irrationally (helping the children to win) while either following or breaking the rules of the game. Both age groups performed costly protest against an opponent who followed the rules but played irrationally by helping the children to win. When facing a rule-breaking opponent, 3-year-olds protested only the rule breaches of an irrational opponent but not irrational play. Five-year-olds also protested the rule breaches of a rational opponent, but in contrast to the 3-year-olds, they protested irrational behavior even in the context of rule breaches. Moreover, many children, in particular 3-year-olds, refrained from protesting. These findings suggest that 5-year-olds, but not 3-year-olds, fully understand the dual-level normative structure of cooperatively regulated competition.
    Full-text · Article · Mar 2016 · Journal of Experimental Child Psychology
  • Katja Karg · Martin Schmelz · Josep Call · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: Although chimpanzees understand what others may see, it is unclear whether they understand how others see things (Level 2 perspective-taking). We investigated whether chimpanzees can predict the behavior of a conspecific which is holding a mistaken perspective that differs from their own. The subject competed with a conspecific over two food sticks. While the subject could see that both were the same size, to the competitor one appeared bigger than the other. In a previously established game, the competitor chose one stick in private first and the subject chose thereafter, without knowing which of the sticks was gone. Chimpanzees and 6-year-old children chose the ‘riskier’ stick (that looked bigger to the competitor) significantly less in the game than in a nonsocial control. Children chose randomly in the control, thus showing Level 2 perspective-taking skills; in contrast, chimpanzees had a preference for the ‘riskier’ stick here, rendering it possible that they attributed their own preference to the competitor to predict her choice. We thus run a follow-up in which chimpanzees did not have a preference in the control. Now, they also chose randomly in the game. We conclude that chimpanzees solved the task by attributing their own preference to the other, while children truly understood the other’s mistaken perspective.
    No preview · Article · Feb 2016 · Animal Cognition
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    Martina Vogelsang · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: Recent research has found that even preschoolers give more resources to others who have previously given resources to them, but the psychological bases of this reciprocity are unknown. In our study, a puppet distributed resources between herself and a child by taking some from a pile in front of the child or else by giving some from a pile in front of herself. Although the resulting distributions were identical, three- and five-year-olds reciprocated less generously when the puppet had taken rather than given resources. This suggests that children’s judgments about resource distribution are more about the social intentions of the distributor and the social framing of the distributional act than about the amount of resources obtained. In order to rule out that the differences in the children’s reciprocal behavior were merely due to experiencing gains and losses, we conducted a follow-up study. Here, three- and-five year olds won or lost resources in a lottery draw and could then freely give or take resources to/from a puppet, respectively. In this study, they did not respond differently after winning vs. losing resources.
    Full-text · Article · Jan 2016 · PLoS ONE
  • Bahar Köymen · Maria Mammen · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: In the context of joint decision-making, we investigated whether preschoolers alter the informativeness of their justifications depending on the common ground that they share with their partner. Pairs of 3- and 5-year-olds (N = 146) were introduced to a novel animal with unique characteristics (e.g., eating rocks). In the common ground condition, the children learned about the animal together. In the one-expert condition, one learned about it, the other was naïve. In the two-experts condition, children learned about it separately. Later, the pairs had to decide together on 3 items that the novel animal might need. Both age groups referred to the unique characteristics of the animal in their justifications more in the 2 conditions without common ground than in the common ground condition. Thus, preschoolers begin to use common ground flexibly in their justifications and reason-giving in peer interactions. (PsycINFO Database Record
    No preview · Article · Dec 2015 · Developmental Psychology
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    Richard Moore · Josep Call · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: Orang-utans played a communication game in two studies testing their ability to produce and comprehend requestive pointing. While the ‘communicator’ could see but not obtain hidden food, the ‘donor’ could release the food to the communicator, but could not see its location for herself. They could coordinate successfully if the communicator pointed to the food, and if the donor comprehended his communicative goal and responded pro-socially. In Study 1, one orang-utan pointed regularly and accurately for peers. However, they responded only rarely. In Study 2, a human experimenter played the communicator’s role in three conditions, testing the apes’ comprehension of points of different heights and different degrees of ostension. There was no effect of condition. However, across conditions one donor performed well individually, and as a group orang-utans’ comprehension performance tended towards significance. We explain this on the grounds that comprehension required inferences that they found difficult – but not impossible. The finding has valuable implications for our thinking about the development of pointing in phylogeny.
    Full-text · Article · Dec 2015 · PLoS ONE
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    Silke Brandt · Elena Lieven · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: Children and adults follow cues such as case marking and word order in their assignment of semantic roles in simple transitives (e.g., the dog chased the cat). It has been suggested that the same cues are used for the interpretation of complex sentences, such as transitive relative clauses (RCs) (e.g., that’s the dog that chased the cat) (Bates, Devescovi, & D’Amico, 1999). We used a pointing paradigm to test German-speaking 3-, 4-, and 6-year-old children’s sensitivity to case marking and word order in their interpretation of simple transitives and transitive RCs. In Experiment 1, case marking was ambiguous. The only cue available was word order. In Experiment 2, case was marked on lexical NPs or demonstrative pronouns. In Experiment 3, case was marked on lexical NPs or personal pronouns. Whereas the younger children mainly followed word order, the older children were more likely to base their interpretations on the more reliable case-marking cue. In most cases, children from both age groups were more likely to use these cues in their interpretation of simple transitives than in their interpretation of transitive RCs. Finally, children paid more attention to nominative case when it was marked on first-person personal pronouns than when it was marked on third-person lexical NPs or demonstrative pronouns, such as der Löwe ‘the-NOM lion’ or der ‘he-NOM.’ They were able to successfully integrate this case-marking cue in their sentence processing even when it appeared late in the sentence. We discuss four potential reasons for these differences across development, constructions, and lexical items. (1) Older children are relatively more sensitive to cue reliability. (2) Word order is more reliable in simple transitives than in transitive RCs. (3) The processing of case marking might initially be item-specific. (4) The processing of case marking might depend on its saliency and position in the sentence.
    Full-text · Article · Nov 2015 · Language Learning and Development
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    Manuel Bohn · Josep Call · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: Iconic gestures-communicative acts using hand or body movements that resemble their referent-figure prominently in theories of language evolution and development. This study contrasted the abilities of chimpanzees (N=11) and 4-year-old human children (N=24) to comprehend novel iconic gestures. Participants learned to retrieve rewards from apparatuses in two distinct locations, each requiring a different action. In the test, a human adult informed the participant where to go by miming the action needed to obtain the reward. Children used the iconic gestures (more than arbitrary gestures) to locate the reward, whereas chimpanzees did not. Some children also used arbitrary gestures in the same way, but only after they had previously shown comprehension for iconic gestures. Over time, chimpanzees learned to associate iconic gestures with the appropriate location faster than arbitrary gestures, suggesting at least some recognition of the iconicity involved. These results demonstrate the importance of iconicity in referential communication.
    Full-text · Article · Oct 2015 · Journal of Experimental Child Psychology
  • Gregor Stöber · Richard Moore · Robert Hepach · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: Though most toddlers spend an extensive amount of time in the presence of peers and siblings, the encounters they have with age-mates are qualitatively much different from the structured interactions they have with caretakers. Such differences are likely to influence how children engage in either context subsequently. Comparing children’s performance with adult and peer partners enables us to trace context-specific motivations and expectations guiding the ontogeny of mutual understanding. We tested 27-month-olds in a cooperative object-choice task in which partners took turns helping each other to locate a hidden toy by pointing out its hiding place. Under matched conditions, children were either tested in interaction with an age-mate or an adult experimenter. We found that children were significantly less likely to comply with cues offered by a peer than by an adult. In order to investigate whether children perceive or value information differently when it is provided by peers, we designed a follow-up study in which children are invited to play the same hide-and-seek game with a televised peer or adult in a semi-interactive set-up. This allows for the employment of looking time measures and the minute control of children’s experience in the test.
    No preview · Conference Paper · Oct 2015
  • Jan M Engelmann · Esther Herrmann · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: Animals react in many different ways to being watched by others. In the context of cooperation, many theories emphasize reputational effects: Individuals should cooperate more if other potential cooperators are watching. In the context of competition, individuals might want to show off their strength and prowess if other potential competitors are watching. In the current study, we observed chimpanzees and human children in three experimental conditions involving resource acquisition: Participants were either in the presence of a passive observer (observed condition), an active observer who engaged in the same task as the participant (competition condition), or in the presence of but not directly observed by a conspecific (mere presence condition). While both species worked to acquire more resources in the competition condition, children but not chimpanzees also worked to acquire more resources in the observer condition (compared to the mere presence condition). These results suggest evolutionary continuity with regard to competition-based observer effects, but an additional observer effect in young children, potentially arising from an evolutionary-based concern for cooperative reputation.
    No preview · Article · Sep 2015 · Animal Cognition
  • Daniel Schmerse · Elena Lieven · Michael Tomasello

    No preview · Article · Sep 2015 · Journal of Child Language
  • Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: All primates engage in one or another form of social learning. Humans engage in cultural learning. From very early in ontogeny human infants and young children do not just learn useful things from others, they conform to others in order to affiliate with them and to identify with the cultural group. The cultural group normatively expects such conformity, and adults actively instruct children so as to ensure it. Young children learn from this instruction how the world is viewed and how it works in their culture. These special forms of cultural learning enable powerful and species-unique processes of cumulative cultural evolution.
    No preview · Article · Sep 2015
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    Manuel Bohn · Josep Call · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: There is currently debate about the extent to which non-linguistic beings such as human infants and great apes are capable of absent reference. In a series of experiments we investigated the flexibility and specificity of great apes' (N=36) and 12month-old infants' (N=40) requests for absent entities. Subjects had the choice between requesting visible objects directly and using the former location of a depleted option to request more of these now-absent entities. Importantly, we systematically varied the quality of the present and absent options. We found that great apes as well as human infants flexibly adjusted their requests for absent entities to these contextual variations and only requested absent entities when the visible option was of lower quality than the absent option. These results suggest that the most basic cognitive capacities for absent reference do not depend on language and are shared by humans and their closest living relatives. Copyright © 2015 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
    Full-text · Article · Aug 2015 · Cognition
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    Holger Diessel · Michael Tomasello

    Full-text · Article · Aug 2015
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    Julia Ulber · Katharina Hamann · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: Young children are often considered "selfish" with resources because they are reluctant to give up things already in their possession (e.g., as in dictator games). In the current two studies, we presented pairs of 18- and 24-month-old toddlers with various situations involving resources that no one possessed ahead of time. We observed very few instances of individuals attempting to monopolize the resources; rather, the pair peaceably divided them such that each child got something. Equal divisions-even involving one child sacrificing his or her own resources to establish equality-were especially pronounced when children were acting together jointly even in the absence of active collaboration. Children's divisions were also influenced by cues to ownership such as a spatial pre-division of resources and resources marked by color (and originally spatially associated with one individual). These results suggest that young children are not selfish, but instead rather generous, with resources when they are dividing them among themselves. Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
    Full-text · Article · Aug 2015 · Journal of Experimental Child Psychology
  • Patricia Grocke · Federico Rossano · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: When it is not possible to distribute resources equitably to everyone, people look for an equitable or just procedure. In the current study, we investigated young children's sense of procedural justice. We tested 32 triads of 5-year-olds in a new resource allocation game. Triads were confronted with three unequal reward packages and then agreed on a procedure to allocate them among themselves. To allocate the rewards, they needed to use a "wheel of fortune." Half of the groups played with a fair wheel (where each child had an equal chance of obtaining each reward package), and the other half played with an unfair wheel. We analyzed children's interactions when using the wheel and conducted an interview with each child after the game was over. Children using the unfair wheel often decided to change the rules of the game, and they also rated it as an unfair procedure in the interview. In contrast, children who played with the fair wheel were mostly accepting of both the outcome and the procedure. Overall, we found that children as young as preschool age are already sensitive not only to distributive justice but to procedural justice as well. Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
    No preview · Article · Aug 2015 · Journal of Experimental Child Psychology
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    ABSTRACT: Young children understand pedagogical demonstrations as conveying generic, kind-relevant information. But, in some contexts, they also see almost any confident, intentional action on a novel artefact as normative and thus generic, regardless of whether this action was pedagogically demonstrated for them. Thus, although pedagogy may not be necessary for inferences to the generic, it may nevertheless be sufficient to produce inductive inferences on which the child relies more strongly. This study addresses this tension by bridging the literature on normative reasoning with that on social learning and inductive inference. Three-year-old children learned about a novel artefact from either a pedagogical or non-pedagogical demonstration, and then, a series of new actors acted on that artefact in novel ways. Although children protested normatively in both conditions (e.g., 'No, not like that'), they persisted longer in enforcing the learned norms in the face of repeated non-conformity by the new actors. This finding suggests that not all generic, normative inferences are created equal, but rather they depend - at least for their strength - on the nature of the acquisition process. © 2015 The British Psychological Society.
    No preview · Article · Aug 2015 · British Journal of Developmental Psychology
  • Katja Karg · Martin Schmelz · Josep Call · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: In two experiments, we investigated whether chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes, can use self-experience to infer what another sees. Subjects first gained self-experience with the visual properties of an object (either opaque or see-through). In a subsequent test phase, a human experimenter interacted with the object and we tested whether chimpanzees understood that the experimenter experienced the object as opaque or as see-through. Crucially, in the test phase, the object seemed opaque to the subject in all cases (while the experimenter could see through the one that they had experienced as see-through before), such that she had to use her previous self-experience with the object to correctly infer whether the experimenter could or could not see when looking at the object. Chimpanzees did not attribute their previous self-experience with the object to the experimenter in a gaze-following task (experiment 1); however, they did so successfully in a competitive context (experiment 2). We conclude that chimpanzees successfully used their self-experience to infer what the competitor sees. We discuss our results in relation to the well-known 'goggles experiment' and address alternative explanations.
    No preview · Article · Jul 2015 · Animal Behaviour
  • Esther Herrmann · Michael Tomasello
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    ABSTRACT: Humans often must coordinate co-occurring activities, and their flexible skills for doing so would seem to be uniquely powerful. In 2 studies, we compared 4- and 5-year-old children and one of humans' nearest relatives, chimpanzees, in their ability to focus and shift their attention when necessary. The results of Study 1 showed that 4-year-old children and chimpanzees were very similar in their ability to monitor two identical devices and to sequentially switch between the two to collect a reward, and that they were less successful at doing so than 5-year-old children. In Study 2, which required subjects to alternate between two different tasks, one of which had rewards continuously available whereas the other one only occasionally released rewards, no species differences were found. These results suggest that chimpanzees and human children share some fundamental attentional control skills, but that such abilities continue to develop during human ontogeny, resulting in the uniquely human capacity to succeed at complex multitasking. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved).
    No preview · Article · Jul 2015 · Journal of Comparative Psychology

Publication Stats

33k Citations
2,231.09 Total Impact Points


  • 1998-2016
    • Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
      • Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology
      Leipzig, Saxony, Germany
    • University of Liverpool
      • School of Biological Sciences
      Liverpool, England, United Kingdom
  • 2014
    • Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology
      Plön, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany
  • 2003-2013
    • The University of Manchester
      • Max Planck Child Study Centre
      Manchester, England, United Kingdom
  • 2011
    • University of Zurich
      • Psychologisches Institut
      Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland
    • St. Francis Xavier University
      Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada
  • 2004-2011
    • Harvard University
      • • Department of Psychology
      • • Department of Anthropology
      Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
    • Manchester University
      North Manchester, Indiana, United States
  • 2010
    • Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
      • Courant Research Centre on the Evolution of Social Behaviour
      Göttingen, Lower Saxony, Germany
  • 2008
    • University of Tuebingen
      Tübingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
  • 1984-2008
    • Emory University
      • Department of Psychology
      Atlanta, Georgia, United States
  • 2002
    • Trinity University
      • Department of Psychology
      San Antonio, Texas, United States
  • 1999
    • City University of New York - College of Staten Island
      • Department of Psychology
      New York, New York, United States
  • 1997
    • University of California, Santa Cruz
      • Department of Psychology
      Santa Cruz, California, United States
  • 1996
    • University of Denver
      • Department of Psychology
      Denver, Colorado, United States
  • 1995
    • Georgia State University
      Atlanta, Georgia, United States