Michael Tomasello

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Michael Tomasello (born January 18, 1950) is an American developmental and comparative psychologist. He is a co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Early life and education

Tomasello was born in Bartow, Florida. He received his bachelor's degree from Duke University and his doctorate from University of Georgia.[1]


He was a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, US, during the 1980s and 1990s.[1] Subsequently he moved to Germany to work at the Max Planck Institute.

He has worked to identify the unique cognitive and cultural processes that distinguish humans from their nearest primate relatives, the other great apes. He studies the social cognition of great apes at the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center in Leipzig. In his developmental research he has focused on how human children become cooperating members of cultural groups, focusing in recent years on uniquely human skills and motivations for shared intentionality: joint intentions, joint attention, collaboration, prosocial motives, and social norms.

Tomasello also works on child language acquisition as a crucially important aspect of the enculturation process. He is a critic of Noam Chomsky's universal grammar, rejecting the idea of an innate universal grammar[2] and instead proposing a functional theory of language development (sometimes called the social-pragmatic or usage-based approach to language acquisition) in which children learn linguistic structures through intention-reading and pattern-finding in their discourse interactions with others.


Origins of human cognition

Tomasello argues that human cognition is special in that humans contain several cognitive capacities that non-humans do not. Most notably the capacity to understand that others have intentions of their own (intentional action), the capacity to share attention with others (joint attention), and the capacity to imitate others. Tomasello also explains that humans develop special cognitive abilities (compared to non-humans) as a result of their socio-cultural environments, which is described through the cultural intelligence hypothesis. These special cognitive abilities are also formed based on an individual’s social environment.

Tomasello gathered evidence to prove that only humans share two dimensions of cognition: reading intentions and interacting with others socially.[3] Reading intentions leads to understanding and acquiring linguistic symbols, because "learning and use of symbols requires understanding that a partner can voluntarily direct actions and attentions to outside entities."[3] This shows intentional action can be made by humans as long as they have a goal. Intentional action is how an organism acts so as to bring reality (as it perceives it) into line with its goals. The simple way of showing the process of intentional action can be seen in this simplified model: "goal determines action, which changes perception (feedback), which (when compared to goal) again determines action."[3] A person wants to achieve a desired outcome and must perform an action to achieve this desired outcome. Depending on the end result, another action may or may not take place.

Tomasello says a crucial part of this process is the continual perceptual monitoring that must take place, since an organism must see "(1) what is the current reality (information it uses continuously), (2) whether it executed the action intended, and (3) the result produced by the action."[3] This means that the organism is not aware of all factors going on around it, but instead is only paying attention to its own desired outcome. This leads to an additional theory that organisms have intentional perception, also known as selective attention.

Joint attention is another cognitive capacity Tomasello explores. Joint attention is when two individuals share the same attention on a particular object. This could be done through an action, like pointing, gazing, or showing body movement directed toward another object or by verbally letting another organism know what to look at. Tomasello found evidence to prove that infants can begin to engage in joint attentional interactions because they understand that others around them are also agents of joint attention.[4] This is unique because it means that infants have the capacity to identify with adults and distinguish the underlying goal of those around the infants through their actions.[4] This is different from the idea that infants just acknowledge external motives and respond to these actions without true understanding.[5]

Another social-cognitive revolution that has been explored by Tomasello is the idea of imitation. Infants can see different ways to achieving a goal, and follow the actions of others to achieve the goal. Infants from 9 to 12 months begin to observe the actions of adults around them and imitate their actions. This means that infants observe an action, identify the underlying goal, and mimic the means of achieving the goal that they observe. In their 1998 study, Tomasello and colleagues conducted an experiment which proved 16-month-old infants only copied the intentional actions of adults, ignoring the accidental actions.[6] This shows that children reproduce actions only to achieve the intended end result, and they do not just mimic actions that have no meaning behind them. Humans have been able to preserve their cognitive abilities throughout history, allowing future generations to imitate and continue developing.

Tomasello explains how humans have developed unique cognitive abilities by proposing the cultural intelligence hypothesis, which states that humans develop these unique abilities because they are able to use social-cognitive skills to exchange knowledge in cultural groups. Through this argument, Tomasello proposes that because humans are able to absorb and share knowledge, they continue to develop, while non-humans' abilities may remain stagnant. This differs from the general intelligence hypothesis, which argues that humans possess unique cognitive abilities simply because they have larger brains than non-humans and therefore more intelligence. In order to test his hypothesis, Tomasello and other researchers used a Primate Cognition Test Battery (PCTB) which analyzes the difference between physical cognition and social cognition. According to Tomasello’s theory (cultural intelligence hypothesis), humans and non-humans should at some point share similar physical cognition abilities, while their social cognition abilities should be more advanced, whereas the general intelligence hypothesis would argue that humans should have large advantages for both types of cognition. Results of the study provided strong support for Tomasello’s cultural intelligence hypothesis, as young children performed similarly to chimpanzees on many physical cognition tasks but far outperformed them on social cognition tasks.[7]

Tomasello also explains that the environment in which humans grow plays a major role in their development of cognition. He argues that children grow up and learn in a very interactive environment that is facilitated by their caregivers. Tomasello gives an example of the impact of environment when he cites how a child being raised on a desert island, isolated from social interaction, would have cognition similar to that of apes.[8] Whereas growing up in a culture with people teaching language and other subjects would provide the child with a more interactive life, creating a more complex way of thinking. Passing down this knowledge of social interaction allows for a bigger sense of collaboration, creating a more developed cognition from generation to generation.[8] This ability of joint interaction keeps developing over time and is crucial for the improvement of human cognition.[9]

Tomosello also argues that "humans beings are biologically adapted for culture in ways other primates are not," specifically citing the social learning skills humans possess. He believes that this adaptation for culture begins in human ontogeny at 12 months, since this is when infants begin to understand intentional action.[citation needed] Adaptability for culture allows children to gain their own knowledge and understanding of the world and begin to develop cultural evolution’s most important outcome: language.[citation needed]

Tomasello (2003)’s Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition

Other than the usual criticisms of Chomsky and the nativist perspective, the major theoretical contribution here is an account of how children may eventually form adult-like grammatical categories through abstract generalizations over patterns attested in child speech production. Children are believed to form slot-and-frame patterns or constructions such as 'Wanna +X' or it's X' where X starts of being a particular lexical item, and as the frames collapse onto one another through low-scope generalization, X may start to refer to something less specific and more abstract, such as an ACTION (in the case of 'Wanna + X'). In this case the ACTION refers not to a fully operational VERB class or category as it is supposed that adult-like syntactic behaviour emerges only much later in a child's development. Crucially, it is argued that (a) the child's productions themselves are used directly in the low-scope generalizations through which these slot-and-frame patterns emerge (b) That the intermediate slot-and-frame stages are necessary to the child's acquisition of adult-like grammar (c) That the child is unable to form an adult-like linguistic category (e.g. 'VERB') through mere distributional analysis over individual lexical items.

Central to the usage-based model is the theory of "construction grammar" as developed variously by linguists such as Adele Goldberg and William Croft. The model itself is basically a review of already existing theories, models and experimental techniques. However, in typical anti-nativist fashion, the social-pragmatic dimensions of language acquisition are emphasized as they are believed by the author to underscore the unique social cognition believed to underlie co-operative behaviour in humans and primates.[10] In similar vein, it is argued that the skills required for language learning are not domain-specific, like in Chomsky's LAD (language acquisition device), but are generalizable across all cognitive domains.

Two sets of skills integral to child language acquisition are mentioned: intention-reading and pattern-finding, both of which are believed to develop around 9–12 months of age. In particular, intention-reading is crucial to whether infants and very young children are able to engage in joint-attention, a skill claimed by the author to underlie much of language learning under naturalistic conditions. However, 'joint attention' is often used interchangeably and exclusively with 'shared visual gaze' in the literature, while researchers sympathetic to the author's views sometimes hold that a theory of mind is necessary for intention-reading, and thus to language learning under this account. Unfortunately, this would imply that autistic children and individuals with SLI (or specific language impairment) are somehow linguistically deficient or even less than human, or in the case of equating 'joint attention' with 'shared visual gaze', that blind people are somehow incapable of learning language.[11] Arguably more vital for language acquisition is the general cognitive skill of pattern-finding, which experimental findings indicate may in some sense be innate to primate and human cognition, as in the perceptual magnet effect in the formation of prototypes and categorical perception in certain vowel and consonant sounds.[12]

Furthermore, four broad mechanisms of language acquisition are highlighted and updated under the framework of construction grammar. It is important to note that these processes are assumed to occur in many other theories of language acquisition, with the 'entrenchment' and 'preemption' hypotheses having been developed by early nativist theorists . Although this account of language learning applies to all types of linguistic items including lexical items and phonological classes, the account presented below applies particularly to English morpho-syntax or grammar.

  1. Intention Reading and Cultural Learning posits that children learn conventional form-meaning correspondences from their caregivers through various forms of social interaction. Social interaction works on the child to account for the child's acquisition of both lexical items of any length, from individual words and morphemes to idiomatic or fixed phrases, as well as 'grammatical rules', which in construction grammar include both adult-like linguistic categories such as noun or verb as well as intermediate entities called lexically-specific constructions or schemas memorised as word-specific frames such as 'I wanna X'. Crucially, all of these components, traditionally divided into the 'lexical' and 'grammatical', are thought to have psychological reality and are stored the same way in the user's mind as 'constructions'.
  2. Schematization and Analogy: Unlike most Universal Grammar approaches to child language acquisition, construction grammar posits that grammatical rules are emergent over already acquired constructions or learnt piecemeal from actually occurring utterances rather than acquired through the setting of linguistic parameters during child development. Schematization occurs when these lexically-specific construction schemas are entrenched in the young child's mind through associative or statistical learning. Through analogy over a broad range of utterances/schemas that share either formal or functional similarity, the child eventually acquires adult-like syntactic constructions (e.g. SUBJECT VERB OBJECT) and their semantic correlates (e.g. AGENT ACTION PATIENT)[13]
  3. Entrenchment and Preemption accounts for how children limit their utterances to those found in adult speech. The entrenchment hypothesis states that repeated presentation of a particular item in a particular construction constitutes probabilistic evidence that it can NOT be used in constructions in which it has not appeared. [14] The pre-emption hypothesis states that overgeneralization errors (such as 'sleeped' instead of 'slept', due to the application of the past tense morpheme -ed) cease when the child learns an adult form that expresses the desired meaning, with this form then out-competing the error. [15]
  4. In Functionally-based Distributional Analysis, the child groups together words that perform similar functions (e.g. words that denote events) and that appear in similar sentence constructions. This would presumably allow the child to extract words such as 'eat', 'kick' and 'hit' from the input 'I X-ing it' or vice versa.[16]This process is presumably essential to all accounts of language learning, whether nativist or otherwise.

Challenges to Tomasello's slot-and-frame theory

A review of the relevant studies indicates no direct evidence for or even counter-evidence to some of the specific predictions made by the theory. While the available corpora show that a large proportion of children's utterances may be accounted for by slot-and-frames such as 'It's a(n) X', these do not constitute direct evidence for the claim that such 'frozen phrases' can or do participate directly in syntactic development, or that these constitute the entirety of child syntax as psycholinguistic experiments have typically shown that comprehension outstrips production.

Furthermore, a 2009 study by Bannard et al. showed that a traditional context-free grammar which works probabilistically over individual lexical items was not inferior to a slot-and-frame computational model. One possible interpretation is that the intermediate slot-and-frame stage is not required and that a limited lexical pool is sufficient for the child to form abstract NOUN and VERB categories.[17]

Challenges to Tomasello's social-pragmatic approach to language learning

The claim that children require joint attention and understanding of communicative intent to acquire new words can be challenged on many grounds. Most tellingly, infants have been shown to display understanding of certain words like "mommy" and "daddy" at age 6 months under experimental conditions while joint attention (which is most commonly understood as referring to shared visual gaze) appears to develop only after the age of one.[18] Secondly, experiments involving young children (1,0) acquiring new words and birds acquiring birdsong also show evidence of linguistic and other types of learning taking place without another member of the same species being present to provide the right type of gaze or joint attention.[19] Furthermore, there could be considerable cross-cultural variation in the use of joint attention in language acquisition or learning (as a function of child-directed speech). While joint attention and communicative intent can most definitely aid language learning in a child's later years, they are most certainly not "pre-requisites" to the latter.

In fact it is unclear if any of Tomasello's experiments involving novel word acquisition by children show conclusively that joint attention is required at all. Among the many objections raised are that the child could simply have used the experimenter's gaze as a cue in associative learning, i.e. an older child (1,6-1,8) assumes that the object that the experimenter is looking at is probably what the experimenter is referring to with the novel utterance while a younger child (1,2-1,3) might have associated the novel utterance with the object of her own gaze[20] The third and final objection raised by Ambridge and Lieven (2011) is that autistic children do learn to use language appropriately in naturalistic settings (albeit their limited language use) despite having apparent problems with joint attention and understanding communicative intention.

Primate cognition

One of Tomasello’s primary areas of research is primate cognition. Throughout his academic career Tomasello has argued that the study of primate cognition can reveal a lot about the relationship between humans and other primates, as well as cognitive science as a whole. He explains that historically, cognitive scientists have not paid close enough attention to the study of primate cognition, when in reality the two are identical in many ways. Tomasello would argue that all researchers have long neglected primate cognition, though more recently it has become an increasingly common field of study. Today, many researchers are discovering that the study of primate cognition can reveal significant information about evolutionary changes and adaptations in all primates. Additionally, many researchers are discovering that other primates already possess the most basic cognitive processes that humans use. Many of the more advanced processes are unique to humans, though.

Tomasello explains that almost all researchers would agree that all primates perceive physical objects in space the same way. Recent research shows that primates perform well on Piagetian object permanence tasks, which shows that they understand that objects exist even after they are out of physical sight. Additionally, primates are shown to have an understanding of object identity. Other research Tomasello has conducted shows that primates also have the ability to form perceptual categories—almost as accurately as humans, after having received training. Primates are also able to mentally quantify objects, as research has shown that they are able to correctly differentiate between an object with more items inside it from one with less. Tomasello explains that this is a process many thought was only possessed by humans.

Tomasello also explains that recent research has shown that many primates have the ability to understand causality—how the use of one object brings about a certain effect. Old studies showed that non-human primates did not possess this ability, which Tomasello believes is due to a lack of prior direct learning experiences with the object being used. Newer research has shown that primates do have this ability, in certain situations. For example, studies have shown that chimpanzees were able to learn to move a reward over a solid surface, as opposed to over a trap. They were then able to transfer this knowledge to a new situation where the cues were changed—illustrating that they do have some understanding of causality. Additional studies have shown that chimpanzees are able to infer the location of food, based on their understanding of its weight and surroundings, again exemplifying their understanding of causality.

Tomasello explains that much like causality, many believe that non-human primates have no sense of past or future time. But recent studies have shown that chimpanzees learn very quickly to save a tool that they know may have an important future use, an example of them planning for the future. This action shows that they have a sense of time other than just the present.

Moving beyond physical space, Tomasello, unlike many other researchers, believes that non-human primates do understand the behavior of others—in terms of goals and intentions, and perception and knowledge. Recent research has shown that often chimpanzees base their reactions not on the sole behavior of others, but on their underlying goals. For example, Tomasello explains that chimpanzees react differently when a human is not giving them food because they choose not to, as opposed to when they are not giving them food because they are not able to. They will have a much more negative reaction to the first, as they are able to read and interpret their negative intentions. Studies have also shown that when chimpanzees are attempting to imitate, they will often act out the person's intended action, rather than their actual action. Recent studies have also shown that chimpanzees take into account perception and knowledge of the person they are communicating with. For example, chimpanzees will often change their movements or positioning, based on what that person can see—illustrating that they are taking into account their perception.[21]

Tomasello has been able to do further research in chimpanzee and primate cognition. In "The Learning and Use of Gestural Signals by Young Chimpanzees: A Trans-generational Study", he specifically looked at the gestural communication between primates. He used his studies on infant cognition and children’s ability to understand intention and applied it to juvenile chimpanzees. Tomasello wanted to see in what context chimpanzees used their gestures. This research found that infant chimps used similar gestures in different contexts and would adjust the gestures depending on the attention they wanted to receive. Another question asked by Tomasello was how these chimpanzees acquired these movements. It was seen that the individual gestures made by these young chimpanzees were too personalized to prove that chimps were capable of imitation.[22]

All of this more recent research has shown that primates possess cognitive abilities that many thought were too advanced for them. Tomasello firmly believes that the study of primate cognition should be continued and that in the next 30 years after these studies, many gray areas involving specific cognitive capabilities of non-human primates will be made clear. Additionally, he believes that increased research on primate cognition will reveal more about evolution and help explain what exactly makes human cognition so unique and special.[citation needed]


Selected works

  • Tomasello, M. & Call, J. (1997). Primate Cognition. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-510624-4
  • Tomasello, M. (1999). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00582-1 (Winner of the William James Book Award of the APA, 2001)
  • Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01764-1 (Winner of the Cognitive Development Society Book Award, 2005)
  • Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of Human Communication. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-20177-3 (Winner of the Eleanor Maccoby Book Award of the APA, 2009)
  • Tomasello, M. (2009). Why We Cooperate. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-01359-8
  • Tomasello, M. (2014). A Natural History of Human Thinking. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674724778
  • Tomasello, M. (2016). A Natural History of Human Morality. Harvard University Press.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Biographical information from his official webpage
  2. 2.0 2.1 2011 Wiley Prize in Psychology at Wiley.com
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Tomasello, Michael; Carpenter, Malinda; Call, Josep; Behne, Tanya; Moll, Henrike (2005). "Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition". Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 28: 675–735. doi:10.1017/s0140525x05000129.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Tomasello, Michael (2000). "Culture and Cognitive Development". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 9 (2): 37–40. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00056.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Tomasello, Michael; Haberl, Katharina (2003). "Understanding Attention: 12- and 18-Month-Olds Know What Is New for Other Persons". Developmental Psychology. 39 (5): 906–912. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.39.5.906.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Carpenter, M.; Akhtar, N.; Tomasello, M. (1998). "14- through 18-month-old infants differentially imitate intentional and accidental actions". Infant Behavior and Development. 21: 315–330. doi:10.1016/s0163-6383(98)90009-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Herrmann, Esther; Call, Josep; Hernandez-Lloreda, Maria Victoria; Hare, Brian; Tomasello, Michael (2007). "Humans Have Evolved Specialized Skills of Social Cognition: The Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis". Science. 317 (5843): 1360–1366. doi:10.1126/science.1146282.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 Tomasello, Michael (July 23, 2011). "Michael Tomasello, Max Planck Institute, Leipzig, Germany - Heineken Prize Winner" (Interview). Interviewed by Roger Bingham. The Science Network. Retrieved April 27, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Hauser, Marc D. (May 5, 2000). "'Et tu Homo sapiens?' Rev. of The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, author Micahel Tomasello". Science. pp. 816–817.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Tomasello, Michael (2000). "First steps toward a usage-based theory of language acquisition". Cognitive Linguistics. 11.1/2: 61–82.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Tomasello, M. (2006) Acquiring Linguistic Constructions in Siegler and Kuhn (eds.) Handbook of Child Psychology: Cognitive Development
  12. Kuhl (2004)
  13. Ambridge and Lieven (2011) p.135-136
  14. Ambridge and Lieven (2009) p.252
  15. Ambridge and Lieven (2009) p.254
  16. Ambridge and Lieven (2011) p.136
  17. Ambridge and Lieven 2011 p.216-223
  18. Ambridge and Lieven (2011) 'Child Language Acquisition: Contrasting Theoretical Approaches' p.82
  19. Kuhl, P. (2004) Early Language Acquisition: Cracking the Speech Code
  20. Ambridge and Lieven (2011) 'Child Language Acquisition: Contrasting Theoretical Approaches' p.71-75
  21. Tomasello, Michael; Seed, Amanda (2010). "Primate Cognition". Topics in Cognitive Science. 2: 407–419.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Tomasello, Michael; Call, Josep; Nagell, Katherine; Olguin, Raquel; Carpenter, Malinda. "The learning and use of gestural signals by young chimpanzees: A trans-generational study". Primates. 35 (2): 137–154. doi:10.1007/bf02382050.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "Klaus Jacobs Preis". Süddeutsche Zeitung. December 2, 2011. p. 18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Prizewinners at the German Helmuth Plessner Society (HPG)


  • Ambridge, Ben and Lieven, Elena V.M. (2011). Child Language Acquisition: Contrasting Theoretical Approaches. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  • Tomasello, M. and Call, J. (1997). Primate cognition. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Tomasello, Michael. Interview by Roger Bingham. The Science Network. The Science Network, 2011. Web. 27 April 2014. [6]
  • Bybee, Joan. "Entrenchment and Plasticity in Language Structure and Use." University of New Mexico. Powerpoint.

External links