The human first hypothesis: identification of conspecifics and individuation of objects in the young infant

Cogn Psychol. 2002 Jun;44(4):388-426. doi: 10.1006/cogp.2002.0779.


How do infants individuate and track objects, and among them objects belonging to their species, when they can only rely on information about the properties of those objects? We propose the Human First Hypothesis (HFH), which posits that infants possess information about their conspecifics and use it to identify and count objects. F. Xu and S. Carey [Cognitive Psychology, 30(2), 111-153, 1996] argued that before the age of 1 year, infants fail to use property information. To explain their results, Xu and Carey proposed the Object First Hypothesis (OFH), according to which infants under 1 year of age have only the general concept of physical object to identify and count objects. We show that infants have a more extensive knowledge of sortals than that claimed by the OFH. When 10-month-olds see one humanlike and one non-humanlike object, they successfully identify and count them by using the contrast in their properties, as predicted by the HFH. We also show that infants succeed even when they make a decision based on differences between two close basic-level categories such as humanlike objects and doglike objects, but fail when they have to use differences within the human category. Thus, infants treat "human" as a basic sortal, as predicted by the HFH. We argue that our results cannot be accounted for by general purpose mechanisms. Neither the strong version of the OFH and its explanation in terms of object indexing mechanisms [A. M. Leslie, F. Xu, P. Tremoulet, & B. J. Scholl, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2(1), 10-18, 1998] nor explanations in terms of task demands [T. Wilcox & R. Baillargeon, Cognitive Psychology, 37(2), 97-155, 1998] are sufficient to explain our results.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child Development / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Concept Formation*
  • Discrimination, Psychological*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Psychology, Child