Collaborative partner or social tool? New evidence for young children’s understanding of joint intentions in collaborative activities


Felix Warneken, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 33 Kirkland St., Cambridge, MA 02138, USA; e-mail:


Some children’s social activities are structured by joint goals. In previous research, the criterion used to determine this was relatively weak: if the partner stopped interacting, did the child attempt to re-engage her? But re-engagement attempts could easily result from the child simply realizing that she needs the partner to reach her own goal in the activity (social tool explanation). In two experiments, 21- and 27-month-old children interacted with an adult in games in which they either did or did not physically need the partner to reach a concrete goal. Moreover, when the partner stopped interacting, she did so because she was either unwilling to continue (breaking off from the joint goal) or unable to continue (presumably still maintaining the joint goal). Children of both age groups encouraged the recalcitrant partner equally often whether she was or was not physically needed for goal attainment. In addition, they did so more often when the partner was unable to continue than when she was unwilling to continue. These findings suggest that young children do not just view their collaborative partners as mindless social tools, but rather as intentional, cooperative agents with whom they must coordinate intentional states.