Annie E. Wertz


Postdoctoral Researcher, Yale University

My research program investigates social learning in infancy and the development of social cognition from infancy to adulthood.  My work integrates developmental and evolutionary perspectives to examine the ways in which core cognitive architecture and cultural knowledge interact during the earliest stages of development. 


Learning what to eat and what dangers must be avoided are two of the most important problems that must be solved over the course of development.  Plants have been central to both of these tasks across human evolution: gathered plant resources have formed the basis of human diets, but many plants can be toxic or even deadly when ingested or handled.  My research examines whether infants possess social learning mechanisms that are specialized to acquiring information about plants.  My work shows that 6- to 18-month-olds (i) preferentially identify plants over artifacts as food sources after viewing the same food-relevant social information applied to both object types, and (ii) exhibit a striking reluctance to reach out and touch plants compared to other types of entities in the absence of social information.  This constitutes the first evidence that human infants possess social learning strategies selective to plants.  This work won the Postdoctoral Award at the 2012 Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference.

My second line of research examines the development of fundamental elements of social cognition across the lifespan.  Most of this work has investigated theory of mind (ToM)—the ability to interpret, predict, and explain others’ actions in terms of underlying mental states—with a focus on how ToM operates in everyday situations.  I have continued researching ToM with infants, and have established collaborations to investigate other aspects of social cognitive development from infancy to adulthood.