Learning through … Natural Pedagogy

The book Learning through Others (2020) illustrates and discusses the infant social learning theory called “Natural Pedagogy”. The natural pedagogy theory, proposed by György Gergely and Gergely Csibra, has the ambitious scope of providing a model of infant social learning. This particular social learning system is funded on a communicative triadic relation constituted by an adult, a child and a referent that can be as concrete as an object (along with its functions) or rather abstract like a word. In this sense, natural pedagogy represents «a communicative system of mutual design specialized for the fast and efficient transfer of new and relevant cultural knowledge from knowledgeable to ignorant conspecifics» (Gergely – Csibra 2005, p. 463).

One of the revolutionary aspects of natural pedagogy consists of representing infant cognition as a complex system devoting to assimilate knowledge from the surrounding social environment. Starting from birth, humans are immersed in a world of social norms that regulate their behaviour and involve the use of objects, whose functions are not immediately transparent from a cognitive viewpoint and have no adaptive value. They are “simply” arbitrary and conventional. However, cultural norms dominate the life of social communities and are preserved and transmitted over time.

In order to acquire information, evolutionary adaptation has construed an innate apparatus that makes infants sensitive to grasping particular communicative signals that steer their attention and trigger a referential expectation in their minds. On this view, «preverbal human infants are prepared to receive culturally relevant knowledge from benevolent adults who are spontaneously inclined to provide it» (Csibra-Gergely 2011). The theory focuses on the transfer of relevant cultural knowledge through ostensive communicative manifestations (eye-contact, smiling, particular vocalizations, motherese, contingent reactivity, deictic gestures, and joint attention).

The pedagogical stance construed by the adult-infant communicative relation triggers three biases in the infant’s mind, or in other terms, three different inferential processes (called ‘assumptions’) about the referential object of the informative transmission, and about the source of information.

  1. The first assumption is epistemic trust, which can be defined as the infant’s deferential attitude towards her informative sources. The adult’s ostensive approach makes the infant trustful and triggers the presumption of relevance about the new information transmitted, according to the Sperber’s relevance theory.
  2. The second assumption, termed assumption of generalizability, predicts that ostensive-pedagogical manifestations would facilitate infants «to convey information that is generalizable to the object class that the referent belongs to, considered as part of universally shared cultural knowledge about the object kind» (Gergely et al. 2007, p. 140).
  3. The third assumption, assumption of universality, predicts that whatever the child learns in a pedagogical context will be known by everyone. This assumption presumes that what it is achieved within a pedagogical condition is known and universally shared through a spontaneous epistemic attribution to all the other community members, even if they are not present in the contingent teaching context.

I assume that the universality assumption is crucial for the efficacy of knowledge transmission and above all for the maintenance of cultural knowledge in the form of conventions and common ground beliefs between generations. Such implication of natural pedagogy would represent a fundamental strategy for cultural transmission, one that enables to optimize the reinforcement of social practices, beliefs, and values of communities.

Learning from others implies not only the acquisition of practical competences but also of norms, rituals and beliefs of one’s cultural group. Tomasello (2016, p. 643) acknowledged that in virtue of natural pedagogy «human children do not just culturally learn useful instrumental activities and information, they conform to the normative expectations of the cultural group and even contribute themselves to the creation of such normative expectations».

The focus of my research is to investigate the nature of the epistemic attribution predicted by the universality assumption. My hypothesis is that the omniscience bias is the result of a cooperation with a primary form of mindreading, which presents a flexible structure and sophisticated skills for what concerns the belief attribution faculty.


  1. Tad Zawidzki

    This is great Emiliano! Congratulations on the fantastic accomplishment. The one worry I have is calling the underlying socio-cognitive capacities “mind reading” or “belief attribution”. Here’s why: one of the key marks of true mind reading seems in tension with the universality assumption. Most standard tests for mentalizing measure a sensitivity to differences between minds. The assumption that everyone has access to the same information is precisely a failure to mentalize, to appreciate that different agents may represent the world differently.

  2. Exactly Tad! thanks for your comment.
    The main feature of mindreading is the sensitivity to differentiate minds. But this “mark” belongs to a mature form of mindreading. In the book, I argue an early form of mindreading that involves belief attribution (and other skills) but not the differentiation of minds. When mindreading gains the “sensitivity to differences between minds”, we lose assumption universality, and we cannot be involved in natural pedagogy contexts. Anyway, this matter will be the topic of the two following posts

  3. Tad Zawidzki

    Great. I look forward to reading the following posts. I guess I’d be interested in hearing what you think qualifies the early form as mindreading or belief attribution, rather than something else. In my own work (and work with Marco Fenici) I’ve argued that it’s better thought of as tracking patterns of rational, informationally-constrained agency, than as attributing mental states.

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