Understanding the way other people’s minds work—and knowing that those minds can be likened to our own—is crucial to our interactions with other people. A dramatic example comes from the impairments of people with autism. Autism has been described as a kind of ‘mind-blindness’ (Baron-Cohen, 1995
) because children with autism do not conceptualize other people as psychological agents with a rich palette of mental states. They seem to lack what philosophers of mind call the ‘commonsense psychology’ or ‘folk psychology’ that is shared by typical adults.
Commonsense psychology may be common among adults, but it has a developmental history. If we want to discover the origins of such psychology, a good place to look is infancy. This paper marshals theoretical and empirical support for what I have called the ‘like me’ developmental framework (Meltzoff, 2005
, in press
; Meltzoff & Gopnik, 1993
). According to this view, the bedrock on which commonsense psychology is constructed is the apprehension that others are similar to the self. Infants are launched on their career of interpersonal relations with the basic perception: ‘Here is something like me.’ The aim of this paper is to explore the early manifestations and cascading developmental effects of this preverbal intuition of infancy.
The view suggested here is that infants’ primordial ‘like-me’ experiences are based on their representation of action. Infants monitor their own bodily acts via proprioception and can detect cross-modal equivalents between their own acts-as-felt and the acts-as-seen in others. Without this substrate, other humans might exhibit interesting visual features (eye spots) or physical characteristics (self-propelled), but they would not have the unique place they do in the child’s world. In addition to being drawn to interesting visual features, I suggest that young children use a functional analysis: Entities that behave ‘like me’ are accorded special status. It is this fundamental relatedness between self and other, based on the recognition of shared behavior, that will be explored in this paper.
According to classical theories such as Piaget’s (1962)
, infants could not apprehend equivalences between the acts of self and other. Piaget described the young infant as ‘solipsistic,’ and explicitly denied such a connection. Among the experiments that changed this view are those showing that young infants imitate (e.g., Meltzoff & Moore, 1977
). Infant imitation shows that perception and production of human acts are deeply inter-twined, which belies the idea of a solipsistic cocoon. A privileged connection between perception and production is currently the focus of work in neuroscience (e.g., Gallese, 2003
; Iacoboni, 2005
; Rizzolatti, 2005
; Rizzolatti, Fadiga, Fogassi, & Gallese, 2002
) and cognitive psychology (e.g., Hommel, Müsseler, Aschersleben, & Prinz, 2001
; Prinz, 2002
). The data on infant imitation add a specification of the starting state for humans—before language, complex cognition, and prolonged interaction with the world.
This paper goes beyond action representation per se to consider its implications for social development. Although it is dubbed the ‘like me’ account, my thesis is that the equivalence between self and other supports bidirectional learning effects. Going from the inside out, infants’ understanding of others’ acts is imbued with a new meaning by performing similar acts themselves. Going from the outside in, infants learn about themselves and the consequences of their own potential action, before and without producing it, by observing the behavior of others. The same underlying mechanism supports learning in both directions. The studies discussed in this paper document the bidirectionality: Perception influences production, and production influences perception, with substantial implications for social cognition.