Infants' understanding of false labeling events: The referential roles of words and the speakers who use them

Melissa A. Koenig, Catharine H. Echols

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

177 Scopus citations


The four studies reported here examine whether 16-month-old infants' responses to true and false utterances interact with their knowledge of human agents. In Study 1, infants heard repeated instances either of true or false labeling of common objects; labels came from an active human speaker seated next to the infant. In Study 2, infants experienced the same stimuli and procedure; however, we replaced the human speaker of Study 1 with an audio speaker in the same location. In Study 3, labels came from a hidden audio speaker. In Study 4, a human speaker labeled the objects while facing away from them. In Study 1, infants looked significantly longer to the human agent when she falsely labeled than when she truthfully labeled the objects. Infants did not show a similar pattern of attention for the audio speaker of Study 2, the silent human of Study 3 or the facing-backward speaker of Study 4. In fact, infants who experienced truthful labeling looked significantly longer to the facing-backward labeler of Study 4 than to true labelers of the other three contexts. Additionally, infants were more likely to correct false labels when produced by the human labeler of Study 1 than in any of the other contexts. These findings suggest, first, that infants are developing a critical conception of other human speakers as truthful communicators, and second, that infants understand that human speakers may provide uniquely useful information when a word fails to match its referent. These findings are consistent with the view that infants can recognize differences in knowledge and that such differences can be based on differences in the availability of perceptual experience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)179-208
Number of pages30
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 1 2003
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Support for this research was provided by NICHD Grant HD30820 to the second author. A version of this report was submitted by the first author as a Master's Thesis to the University of Texas at Austin. We thank Catherine Caldwell, Don McGeary, and Hipolito Mata for their able research assistance and Cheryl Browne, Susan Gelman, Art Markman, Jacqueline Woolley and three anonymous reviewers for comments on earlier presentations of the work. We are grateful to the infants who participated, their families and Carmen Gonzalez-Sifuentes of the Children's Research Laboratory for their indispensable roles in this research.


  • False labeling
  • Infants
  • Language acquisition
  • Referential intent


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