The Goldilocks Effect: Infants' preference for stimuli that are neither too predictable nor too surprising


Even before birth, infants attend to the statistical properties of their sensory environments to learn about events in world. Tracking these statistics is crucial to mastery of visual, social, linguistic, and cognitive tasks. However, the degree to which their sampling follows prescriptions of rational statistical inference is unclear. Do infants' attentional preferences reflect efficient information gathering? We investigated using an ideal observer model (a Markov Dirichlet-multinomial). We predicted infants' attention to sequential events would be moderated by information content. We tested infants (7-8 months) with 32 unique event sequences (objects popping out of boxes) on a Tobii eye-tracker. Each sequence continued until look-away. Controlling for other variables, we found infants were significantly more likely to look away at either highly informative or uninformative events according to the model. This suggests infants allocate visual attention to maintain intermediate rates of information processing, avoiding committing cognitive resources to either overly predictable or surprising events. This "Goldilocks effect" may reflect a general strategy for efficient learning from environmental statistics.

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