Unwilling versus unable: infants' understanding of intentional action

Tanya Behne, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Michael Tomasello

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

299 Citations (Scopus)


Infants experienced a female adult handing them toys. Sometimes, however, the transaction failed, either because the adult was in various ways unwilling to give the toy (e.g., she teased the child with it or played with it herself) or else because she was unable to give it (e.g., she accidentally dropped it). Infants at 9, 12, and 18 months of age reacted with more impatience (e.g., reaching, looking away) when the adult was unwilling to give them the toy than when she was simply unable to give it. Six-month-olds, in contrast, showed no evidence of this differentiation. Because infants' behavioral responses were appropriately adapted to different kinds of intentional actions, and because the adult's actions sometimes produced results that did not match her goal (when having accidents or failed attempts), these findings provide especially rich evidence that infants first begin to understand goal-directed action at around 9 months of age.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)328-337
Number of pages10
JournalDevelopmental Psychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2005


  • Aptitude
  • Attitude
  • Child Development
  • Cognition
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Intention
  • Male
  • Volition


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