Detecting joint attention events in mother-infant dyads: Sharing looks cannot be reliably identified by naïve third-party observers

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Joint attention, or sharing attention with another individual about an object or event, is a critical behaviour that emerges in pre-linguistic infants and predicts later language abilities. Given its importance, it is perhaps surprising that there is no consensus on how to measure joint attention in prelinguistic infants. A rigorous definition proposed by Siposova & Carpenter (2019) requires the infant and partner to gaze alternate between an object and each other (coordination of attention) and exchange communicative signals (explicit acknowledgement of jointly sharing attention). However, Hobson and Hobson (2007) proposed that the quality of gaze between individuals is, in itself, a sufficient communicative signal that demonstrates sharing of attention. They proposed that observers can reliably distinguish "sharing", "checking", and "orienting" looks, but the empirical basis for this claim is limited as their study focussed on two raters examining looks from 11-year-old children. Here, we analysed categorisations made by 32 naïve raters of 60 infant looks to their mothers, to examine whether they could be reliably distinguished according to Hobson and Hobson's definitions. Raters had overall low agreement and only in 3 out of 26 cases did a significant majority of the raters agree with the judgement of the mother who had received the look. For the looks that raters did agree on at above chance levels, look duration and the overall communication rate of the mother were identified as cues that raters may have relied upon. In our experiment, naïve third party observers could not reliably determine the type of look infants gave to their mothers, which indicates that subjective judgements of types of look should not be used to identify mutual awareness of sharing attention in infants. Instead, we advocate the use of objective behaviour measurement to infer that interactants know they are 'jointly' attending to an object or event, and believe this will be a crucial step in understanding the ontogenetic and evolutionary origins of joint attention.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0255241
Number of pages20
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jul 2021

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