Groupies R Us: Infants' Surprising Capacity for Group-Interaction
Benjamin Sylvester Bradley, MD, Charles Sturt University Bathurst Australia
Babies have a surprising capacity for group-interaction. Overturning traditional monadic and dyadic assumptions about infancy, this finding boosts an old hunch of Darwin's — that what is unique about the human mind is its derivation from in-group dynamics. This insight integrates findings from primatology, paleontology and infants. Laboratory studies of babies in peer-groups establish nine-month-olds' capacity for thirdness," that is, for appreciating relationships between others. Acquiring thirdness is the crux of babies' accession to sign-use and culture.
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If the human mind grew out of group processes, it must be false to talk of any one person 'developing from' or being 'caused by' an individualized and separated-out 'past,' whether that be imagined as nomadic ape, 'my' DNA, my 'infancy,' or my 'conditioning.' As it happens, the word infancy etymologically means what cannot be spoken, not just what is chronologically 'before' speech. Is the human 'unspeakable' best studied in the guise of the young child? Or is what cannot be spoken constantly being re-(un)created through collective dynamics that maintain the wanton war torn cosmos into which each new generation is flung? May not the legend, that the deepest darkest secrets of mental science can be uncovered in the nursery, be a collective diversion from focusing squarely on what is unspeakable here and now in the lives of earthly men and women, lives that ontogenetically, logically and symbolically supersede and make possible the enculturation of any particular baby? If so, what is the status of the 'developmental' science that nevertheless professes to be anchored in the study of infants? May not scientific visions of infancy have the same projective qualities that led Freud (1899, p.69) to call childhood memories screen memories":
Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appear at the later periods when the memories were revived … And a number of motives, which had no concern with historical accuracy, had their part in thus forming them as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.
Consider four examples. J.B. Watson's key to human behavior was sensitivity to reward and punishment. His baby was infinitely malleable. Jean Piaget saw infancy as the first step on the stairway to scientific thinking. He described a baby's intent on puzzling out the laws that govern the physical universe. Freud began by believing we are all driven by sex. He unfurled a baby who was preoccupied by breasts, the anus and, later, the penis or its lack. Bowlby idealized dependable parental care —something he had largely missed out on when young (Holmes, 1993). His baby's defining need was for attentive mothering. Such examples are legion (Bradley, 1989; 2010a).
What of baby science today? It too will have a quantity of such incompatible 'latest things' for as long as nobody tries to assemble a psychology that might integrate things so diverse as sex, infancy, lack and knowing. Today's menu includes: zones of proximal development, social neurological hypotheses, Piagetians, 'theory of mind,' infant-mother, parent-parent and parent-infant attachment, network and activity theorists, mentalization, socio-biology (Klein, 1952; Trevarthen & Aitken, 2001) and knowing of the third kind" (Shotter, 1993). What if not all these different visions of infancy can be right? Which views will win out when it comes to a fight? In contest's place, the various protagonists gather into 'schools' which are for the most part indifferent or opposed to the existence of each other.
Child psychology is the epitome of a science that is not a science, in that it lacks what is called a paradigm: a widely-shared practical and theoretical model of what the mind, and hence infant mind, is. Without a paradigm, scientific progress is impossible: We speak of 'Piagetian' psychology, 'Saussurean' linguistics, 'Levi-Straussian' ethnology, and the very adjective signals to their happy colleagues that here science does not have the power to make scientists agree. We do not speak of 'Crickian' biology or 'Heisenbergian' quantum mechanics, do we?" (Stengers, 2000, p.4). How come this persistent pre-scientific character of psychology: for neither psychology nor child study is a young science? Psychology's history is far longer than the bona fide science of biochemistry, for example. What is the delay? And where might we best pick up a widely acceptable practical and theoretical model for the human mind, embryonic and mature?
Darwin's (1874) group-based theory of mind puts us onto the way to find a genuinely scientific paradigm for the study of mind, whether we are studying infant, ape, or adult. This may seem an odd route to call 'new' for all those who believe that psychology long ago made good on Darwin's promise that psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation" (1859, p.458). Have not a plethora of mind-scientists picked up this promise, the only reference to psychology in On the Origin of Species, and turned it to their own uses? Didn't we spend much of Darwin's 200th birthday last year celebrating this fact (Dewsbury, 2009)? Yes. But we often forget that this famous sentence was Darwin's first not his final word on human psychology. In fact, he deliberately left any elaboration on the human mind out of The Origin because he worried it would have only added to the prejudices against my views" and so damage his book's reception (Darwin, 1874, p.1).
When Darwin systematically laid out his theory of human-mindedness, he focussed on one key claim: what distinguishes the evolution of humans from all other animals was that our mental capacities grow from adapting us to life in groups. Group-life produced language, conscience, in-group altruism/sympathy and conformity, status-awareness and, hatred" for out-groups (Darwin, 1874, Chs. 3-5). Due to the relative weakness of hominid bodies, it is the capacity to maintain cooperative groups that gives us a competitive edge over sympatric species, and it is as cohesive groups or tribes" that proto-humans competed amongst themselves. In short, according to Darwin, groups, not 'the individual' or 'the dyad', furnish the primary unit for analyses of human mental life. The psychology of the group is the oldest human psychology" (Freud, 1922, p.91; commenting on Darwin, 1874, Chs 1-5, 22).
Darwin (1874) proposed four kinds of evidence to back his theory: archaeological, anthropological, comparative (ethological comparison with other species' behavior; 1872) and the study of infants. Rapidly re-emerging in archaeology and primatology, there is now a social brain hypothesis" which brings new support for Darwin's long-ignored group-based psychology. Reviewing copious evidence from research on apes and proto-hominids, Dunbar concludes that the need to maintain coherent groups of a particular size has driven neo-cortex volume evolution through its demands on cognitive competences" (2003, p.169). What about evidence for Darwin's theory from the contemporary studies of babies?
Darwin's (1877) case-study of his first-born son is addressed to many of the key-points of Darwin's (1874, Pt. I) group-based theory of mind (Bradley, 2010b). Thus it focused on the beginnings of moral behaviour and the acquisition of conscience," something which comprised for Darwin a struggle between the voices of long-term group benefits and short-term individual benefits: that is, a struggle between self-preservation and altruism. But this was an ethological case-study of the author's firstborn. It was not laboratory-based and it was not aimed to test directly the possibility that children are capable of group-interaction.
Paul and Salo-Thomson (1996) showed their video-tapes of group therapy with mothers and babies in which the babies seem to be taking an active and interpretable part in the group's dynamics at the Freud in North Queensland" Conference. Seeking a recording-paradigm which would enable us to test this, we were surprised to discover that no-one had ever done laboratory-based studies of infant peer-groups, despite the enormous interest in studies of child care, isolated infants and infant-adult dyads.
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One of our aims was to test the widely-held view that babies are capable of intentional communication (Malloch & Trevarthen, 2009). One of the problems of infant-adult research is that the inherent asymmetry in communicative power between the two participants is so great that what appears to be communicative may be re-interpreted by sceptics as ventriloquism by the adult (Habermas, 1970; Bradley, 2010c). The far more symmetrical all-infant paradigm would allow us to see whether babies can, without adult help, develop meaningful 'conversations' among themselves. If it turns out they can, identifying the meanings they co-produce cannot be achieved by totting up the frequencies of individual occurrences in behavioral categories pre-defined by adult analysts. A given movement (e.g. toe-holding) might mean one thing in one infant peer-group interaction, and another in another, or it might change meaning during several minutes of a given group's gestural conversation.
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Our first study involved 15 babies in 5 groups of 3 between 7 and 9 months of age. After they had arrived in the Bathurst Psychology Suite, the babies were kept in separate chambers until shot into the recording studio. During the visit, mothers filled in a brief survey of the babies' family-structure, their experience of being with other babies (e.g. in child care) and any medical issues they might have. Sessions were terminated when either a parent or (more often) a researcher judged a baby had lost interest in the group. Mothers were offered copies of the videos of their baby-group and their travel-costs were reimbursed. The study had approval from the University Ethics Committee.
We decided to look first at trios (though with colleagues in London we have now moved on to quartets: Urwin et al., 2008). After trying various formats, the most successful was filming babies about nine months of age in push-chairs arranged in an equilateral triangle with each baby in touching distance of the others (preferably without shoes, as feet turn out to be surprisingly expressive). Two cameras sufficed. Once parents had secured their babies in the chairs, all adults moved to an adjacent room to watch proceedings via CCTV (Selby & Bradley, 2003; see Figure 1).
|Figure 1: Configuration of babies and cameras in the "Infants in Groups" paradigm
Analysis of the videos required some innovations. A common approach to the analysis of infantine interactions is to code socially-directed behaviors" (SDBs; Selby & Bradley, 2003) which are defined as being: any behavior accompanied by a look at another person. Looking is intrinsically dyadic (you cannot look at two people at once), thus, precluding the main purpose of group-research which is to see how babies can interact with more than one person at once. Furthermore, SDBs are blind to meaning, treating as equivalent sneeze+look, smile+look, cry+look etc.
We adopted a two-stage case-based approach to analysis. Case-analysis is a powerful if neglected method for theory-development in mind-science as in all science. It has been widely used in medicine, physics and biology, including Darwin, Einstein, Freud, and more generally in the human sciences (Flyvberg, 2006).
Our first step was to undertake a rich or 'thick' prima facie qualitative description of each group from beginning to end. This description was then used to tailor a second quantitative stage of our analysis.
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The first surprising finding — both for us and the parents watching — was that babies seemed largely to enjoy interacting with their peers. Our five trios lasted from between 5 and 25 minutes, with an average length of 12 minutes. The groups also appeared very different from each other. In some groups there was a lot of foot-gestures; in others more vocalization, and so on. During the process of doing our analyses, we saw various exchanges that showed even nine-month-olds are capable of group-interaction.
We observed many incidents that showed babies could interact with more than one other baby at once. Babies have multiple communicative 'systems': touching with feet and hands, manual and pedal gestures, the vocal register, gaze and facial expressions. In groups, they often use two or more of these systems at the same time. For example, babies sometimes reach out with both their feet, making contact with the feet of both the other babies in the trio, or they may be touching one baby with a hand or foot while looking and vocalizing at the other baby.
One particularly interesting aspect of babies' group behavior is rhythm. Thus, in one group, a nine-month-old (Anne) made more than 200 relatively staccato vocalizations over a period of 8 minutes. These were all directed at one baby (Joe). The vocalizations were largely made in groups of two to five, with an even beat, each set taking around one second. Occasionally one or both of the other babies would join in with a similar staccato vocalization 'on the beat.' Thus in one case, a series of rhythmic two-beat vocalizations by Anne, was followed by two further two-beat vocalizations, with the same rhythm and pitch. This is followed by a second child, Mona, then Anne again, followed by the third child Joe (Bradley, 2009).
Babies' group-actions also appear to have distinctive meanings — they may act playfully, imitatively, anxiously. They may be concerned when another baby seems upset. They like some babies more than others. Furthermore, they are capable of not just making but transforming the meaning of a given behavior through group-interaction. For example, one of our prima facie descriptions suggested that an eight-month-old girl (Paula) grabbed onto her left foot in order to 'contain' (cf. Bion, 1962) or 'hold' (cf. Winnicott, 1965) anxieties aroused by her mother's departure from the recording-studio. We initially arrived at this interpretation from noting that Paula first grabbed her foot as she looked with dismay at her mother disappearing through the studio door and that she appeared to be more engaged with the other two babies in the trio when holding her foot than when not holding it.
The idea that Paula's foot-holding provided her with a sense of a having a 'secure base' for (visual-social) exploration (Bowlby, 1988) was subsequently tested in Stage II of our analysis by calculating the proportion of the session for which she held her foot (48%) and the proportion of her looking at her peers that occurred whilst she was foot-holding (twice as much as when she wasn't). This supported the interpretation that Paula's foot-holding signified security in the face of her mother's absence. However, during the course of the group-process, this meaning was augmented by the actions of a second baby, seven-month-old (Esther). Esther soon became fascinated by Paula's foot-holding and began to imitate it, making a series of initiations" (Tremblay-Leveau & Nadel, 1996, p.149: i.e. foot-holding plus looking) back both to Paula and one to Ethel (the third baby in the trio). A minute and a half into the group-process, Esther's fourth foot-holding initiation attracted Paula and she responded to it by imitating Esther's foot-holding back to Esther (See Figure 2: Paula imitating Esther imitating Paula's toe-holding). From this point on, Paula's foot-holding formed part of an imitative game with Esther such that she looked three times as much at Esther as at the third baby (Ethel) in the remainder of the group's interaction. In sum, Paula's foot-holding gained a new meaning that emerged from the communicative process specific to this group and could not have been guessed at a priori.
Two further observations that should be mentioned are nine-month-olds' capacities for concern and jealousy (Selby & Bradley, 2003). These two types of sensitivity have an important theoretical implication: babies are sensitive to relationships between other people. This is what Peirce and others call thirdness" (Bradley, 2010c). The capacity for participating in thirdness" is as important for the growth of self-knowledge (Britton, 2004) as it is for access to the world of signs, which also have a 'triadic' structure.
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How fares Darwin's re-emerging theory that group dynamics spawned our mind when judged by recent findings from Darwin's pet site for proving his evolutionary psychology: case-studies of infants? Early signs from laboratory-based research are encouraging. In which case, what follows?
One result we have just met: early observations of babies in groups have a strong bearing on our understanding of human enculturation insofar as that involves a capacity to feel or appreciate relationships between other people/entities. Second: the central tenet of Darwin's theory requires a re-conceptualization of both 'infancy' as inflected by what cannot (group-dynamically) be spoken and, 'development' as anchored more in what James (1890; 1903) called the duplicitous riches of the 'specious present,' than in the remote past or the embryonic. Thirdly, the training of child-care workers and planners to include opportunities for encouraging babies' group interaction. Fourthly, the possibility of collecting group-based observational classifications of 'infant' psycho-pathology in addition to those 'dyadically' made in e.g. the 'Strange Situation' — though note that the Strange Situation is triadic (including mother, baby and stranger), even when it is thought of as dyadic (as a window on the infant-mother bond).
The most humbling conclusion though is that, despite one hundred and fifty years of psychology's proudly trumpeting its 'basis in Darwin,' what Darwin's actually said about the human psyche has passed almost everyone by, including today's 'evolutionary' psychologists. In fact, the in-group orthodoxy among 'evolutionary psychologists' is that Darwin denied the possibility of a group-based human psychology (despite its being perfectly compatible with modern genetic theory; Williams, 1966; Bradley, 2010a). For example, Pinker (1997, p. 397ff; Bradley, 2010a) states that Darwin's assumptions rule out the possibility of a group-based theory of mind as the foundation for psychology: When people say that animals act for the good of the group, they seem not to realize that the assumption is in fact a radical departure from Darwinism and almost certainly wrong." Compare Darwin's own words:
A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. (Darwin, 1874, p.203).
Finally, to look back on what I have said, for all our protestations that mind is a feature of abstract 'individuals': we, 'you,' 'I' and all are unwittingly creatures of groups' dynamics. We are primarily groupies where feeling, knowledge and mind are concerned. And, if this is so, the baby is not where to start from when we think ab initio.
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