The Development of Social Attention in Human Infants

Document Type

Contribution to Book

Publication Date


Publication Title

The Many Faces of Social Attention: Behavioral and Neural Measures






In this chapter, we define social attention as a dynamic process involving the selection and interpretation of biological motion, including gaze cueing, pointing, facial expression, head and body orientation, and goal-directed actions. Critically, social attention is viewed not just as a product of development, but as a process as well. We begin with a selective review of infants’ social attention and understanding in order to show how the two are reciprocally related in the progression from dyadic to triadic social interactions and joint attention. The evidence indicates that this progression is not attributable to any single developmental process, and that both social attention and social understanding are contextually modulated. As such, findings from laboratory experiments will not easily generalize to more naturalistic situations, especially when the process of selecting the stimulus information is stripped from the task. To better understand how social attention develops, we review research related to three associated processes: (1) shared direction of attention between infant and social partner. In particular, we focus on the development of gaze and point following and distinguish between simply orienting to the same location and understanding each others’ intention and motivation; (2) contributions of motor experience to action understanding. As infants’ motor skills develop and become better coordinated, their understanding of others’ corresponding actions improves; and (3) coordination of attention between infant and social partner. This coordination progresses from initially following others’ social cues and goal-directed actions to the prediction of these actions. All three of these processes interact and contribute to the tutoring of infants’ social attention, which becomes increasingly controlled by endogenous (goal-directed) processes with development.