Jessica Sommerville

Social cognition from infancy through early childhood

My research investigates the development of social cognition from infancy through early childhood. I am interested in typical age-related changes in social cognition and the mechanisms that underlie these developmental changes, as well as the origins and stability of individual differences in early social cognition. I am also interested in the implications that this work may have for understanding developmental disorders that are marked by deficits in social cognition (such as autism). Most of the research that my lab does focuses on how and when infants and young children understand the causal forces behind human behavior. We have investigated when and how infants understand the role that transient mental states (such as goals and intentions) play in behavior, how and when infants understand that more enduring intra-personal characteristics (such as dispositions and preferences) drive behavior, and how and when infants understand the contribution of social and moral norms (such as distributive fairness) in determining others' behavior.

In our recent work, we have investigated how and when infants and children develop a sense of fairness. In this work, we have found evidence for a sense of fairness as early as the first year of life, with the onset of fairness concerns tied to the infants’ participation in sharing interactions. Moreover, we have established that individual differences in infants’ sensitivity to fairness are present in second year of life, tied to infants’ prosocial behavior more broadly, and to parent empathic and prosocial tendencies. In our most recent work, we are seeking to further understand the ways in which infants’ fairness concerns, and other socio-moral tendencies, are similar to and different from those of older children and adults.  We are also investigating the impact of interventions (both those aimed at infants and those aimed at adults) for promoting the development of fairness concerns and prosociality.