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Minerva Fast Track Group "Facets of Early Social Learning"

The Minerva Fast Track Group investigates foundational processes underlying social learning in the first years of life, and explores uniquely human learning mechanisms by comparing humans to other great ape species. Specifically, the research group is motivated by three core questions:

  1. Learning Through Observation: How do infants come to learn from others outside of adult-led interactions?
  2. Visual Attention Orienting: How do overt and covert attentional processes guide the learner's focus during observational social learning?
  3. Methods Development: How can eye-tracking technology be improved for studies with non-human great apes and in remote field settings outside the laboratory?

Ongoing research projects addressing these questions are outlined in more detail below.

Topic 1: Learning Through Observation

The majority of studies on social learning in infancy has focused on learning situations involving high levels of child-directed communiation and pedagogical scaffolding. Comparatively little attention has been paid to social learning situations without adult guidance. To account for the diverse ways through which infants connect with and potentially learn from others, there is a need for studies investigating a wider range of social learning settings and strategies—including observational learning. While the relevance of observational learning has been widely recognized in cross-cultural and anthropological research, it remains a largely unexplored learning context within the area of experimental infancy research.

In addressing this shortcoming, the Minerva Fast Track group examines how the observation of other people, particularly observed joint attention, influences early learning outcomes. One of our projects compares object memory during observed joint attention across humans and non-human great apes, to expand our knowledge of the evolutionary path of joint attention as a cultural learning mechanism in humans. Another project investigates the learner’s active role during observational learning, broadening traditional conceptualizations of observational learning as a primarily passive act of receiving information. 

Topic 2: Visual Attention Orienting During Observational Learning

Previous research has shown that various visual attention processes, including overt (gaze-based) and covert shifts of attention, organize infants’ object learning during self-experienced joint attention with a social partner. In the context of observed joint attention, however, it remains largely unexamined how observers distribute their visual attention.

Our group investigates both types of attention in this context. One project analyzes overt gaze patterns and explores the possibility of utilizing those patterns as a diagnostic tool to infer whether and how humans and non-human great apes represent third-party interpersonal sharedness while observing others’ joint attention. Another project examines covert attentional cueing effects in the context of self-experienced and observed joint attention from infancy to toddlerhood.  

Topic 3: Methods Development

The automatic measurement of eye movements via eye-tracking technology has become an increasingly popular tool and promising method for studying unobservable mental processes in preverbal and non-verbal populations. Originally designed for laboratory settings with adults, eye-tracking is today being successfully used in research with more “challenging” populations, including human infants and non-human primates. Additionally, researchers have started applying the method in remote field settings, enabling research outside the laboratory. However, while eye-tracking is well-established in studies with human infants, its application in studies with apes and in remote field settings is comparatively new and raises unique challenges.

The Minerva Fast Track Group aims to identify and tackle those challenges, develop practical solutions, and contribute to broader research efforts aiming at establishing best practice standards for the method in these comparatively newer application fields. The core methodological focus of our group is on developing procedures to handle and compare eye-tracking data of varying data quality, enabling fairer comparisons across different individuals, populations, and over the course of development.

Group Members

Group leader


Daniela Schmidt

Doctoral Student