Public Release: 

If at first adults don't succeed, babies are more likely to try, try again

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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IMAGE: A handoff: Either the infant hands the toy to the parent or throws the toy to the ground. This material relates to a paper that appeared in the Sept. 22,... view more 

Credit: Julia Anne Leonard

Babies who observe adults push through failure and repeatedly attempt to achieve a goal are more likely to persist when faced with their own difficult tests, scientists report. The results indicate that infants learn perseverance from adult role models, and babies can absorb abstract concepts about how to behave by observing tenacity in others. Evidence is emerging that school-aged children who learn to push through initial failures become more successful later in life, but scientists haven't been able to determine if very young babies learn "grit" directly from adults. To determine if infants can pick up perseverance from observing tenacious grown-ups, Julia Leonard and colleagues measured how long 15 month-old children persisted at a task after seeing adults exert variable amounts of effort. Some babies watched an adult succeed at one of two chores (either opening a container or removing a toy from a key ring) after struggling for thirty seconds, a second group of infants saw adults complete the trial with no effort within 10 seconds, and a third group (baseline) didn't observe any demonstration by the adults. When the babies were subsequently tasked with a different problem -- activating a toy music box by pressing a (non-functional) button -- infants who had seen adults struggle and succeed attempted the frustrating endeavor more times than those who observed grown-ups exert no effort or the baseline condition. The scientists saw similar results in a follow-up experiment where the demonstrating adults did not address the babies directly or make eye-contact, though the effects were weaker.

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