By 20 months old, babies are able to imitate and process words and seem eager to learn about the world around them, but a team from Paris Sciences et Lettres Research University in France believes babies' level of understanding goes beyond the ability to learn. Babies may be much more self-aware of their own level of intelligence than experts had previously given them credit for.

When we don’t have an answer for something, we can make a judgment call whether or not our intellect is too limited to figure it out on our own. After searching through the filing cabinets of our memory, some people may give up and turn to a search engine to fill the gaps in their knowledge, and according to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, babies know when to turn to their parents for answers.

To investigate the extent of the average infant’s knowledge, lead author Louise Goupil, a researcher at the University’s Cognitive Sciences Laboratory and Psycholinguistics, recruited 80 parents and their 20-month-old infants to undergo a learning experiment. For the first few minutes of the study, researchers played with the infants and then hid a toy in one or two boxes either in full view of the infant or behind a curtain that blocked the babies’ view. Researchers paused for 3 seconds and then asked the baby to point to the box where the toy was in.

Half of the babies were left to figure it out on their own and selected one of the two boxes. However, the other half of the babies were given the option to ask for help by having their parents nearby, in which case most of the babies turned and made prolonged eye contact with their parents, indicating a request for help. In a second round, researchers repeated the experiment except this time they held a longer pause of 12 seconds before they asked the babies which box the toy was hidden in. The infants asked for help more often in the second round because it was perceivably more difficult for them to remember where the toy was placed when it was hidden behind the curtain.

The babies who recognized their limitations and asked their parents for help had far fewer incorrect guesses compared to babies who were either not given the option to ask or who chose not to ask. When babies realized they needed help and asked for it, they avoided errors and improved their chances of answering the question correctly.

Being able to identify the moment when they need to reach out and ask for help tells researchers that babies are capable of a sophisticated learning mechanism known as metacognition, or the ability to think about thinking.

Metacognition enables people to successfully learn at a higher order of thinking. Those who exhibit metacognitive abilities are able to plan how to approach a given task, recognize the strengths and limitations of their knowledge, monitor their progress as they work towards their goal, and evaluate their level of success towards the end of the learning process.

Knowing that babies have a more mature awareness of their own intellectual strengths and weaknesses gives researchers the opportunity to work on giving the babies tools and activities designed to help them develop skills more effectively. Goupil and her research team plan on designing similar studies to test on even younger infants in order to pinpoint the stages of metacognition development.

Source: Goupil L, Romand-Monnier M, and Kouider S. Infants ask for help when they know they don’t know. PNAS . 2016.