Luca Surian


How do infants and children acquire the ability to reason about others' mental states? How to they evaluate distributive actions, or actions that help or hinder another agent?  How do children reason about actions that are damaging to the environment?  What is the influence of language and communication on these skills?

These questions focus on the acquisition and the development of core aspects of cognitive architecture and are fundamental to our understanding of both typical and atypical development, such as children with autism.

Other core aspects of development that are currently investigated in our lab are the acquisition of pragmatic skills and the development of object individuation and mathematical cognition.

Research directions

Early understanding of others' minds

Several studies on anticipatory looks suggest that, by the second year, infants can reason about others’ false beliefs (see Gliga et al., 2014; Grosse Wiesmann et al., 2016; Low, 2010; Meristo et al., 2012; Senju et al., 2011; Surian & Geraci, 2012; Thoermer et al., 2012; Wang & Leslie, 2016).

However, some critics, for example Heyes (2014), argued that these findings may be due to low-level factors, such as perception, attention, learning and memory processes. In the current experiments, we take up this challenge and investigate the domain-specificity of mechanisms underpinning anticipatory looking behavior in infants, preschoolers, school-aged children and adults.

Moral judgment and social cognition

Studies on infants: we investigate whether human infants distinguish between social dominance obtained by force vs. dominance resulting from leadership.
The former is a simple form of dominance (a social asymmetry in which a dominant individual prevails over subordinates in competitive situations) that can be functionally distinguished from a more complex form of dominance often referred to as authority (a social asymmetry in which the power of an authority over subordinates is deemed rightful or legitimate by the parties involved). In other studies we present infants with fair and unfair distributors of resources and record their selective preferences in tasks that elicit their manual choices and prosocial actions.
Studies on children: we assess 4-to-5-year-old children’s choices between two contrasting ways of extending ethics to natural entities: anthropocentrism (nature has to be preserved because it helps humans’ interests) and biocentrism (nature has to be preserved because of its intrinsic value).
Children evaluate the rightness or wrongness of a decision taken by an agent acting with either a biocentric or an anthropocentric intention.
Studies on elderly people: we ask older and younger adults to evaluate the goodness or badness of helping or harming actions.
The main hypothesis is that older adults, compared to younger ones, weigh less the agents’ intentions and more the actions outcomes in their moral evaluations. 
We will investigate the origin of this this age-related difference, particularly whether it is related to a decrease in theory of mind abilities.

Language effects on moral reasoning 

We examine whether the use of a foreign language (L2), as opposed to the native language, influences the contribution of mental states versus outcomes in moral evaluations. We hypothesize that L2 use reduces the weight placed on intentions versus outcomes.

To investigate this hypothesis, we present participants with moral scenarios in which the agent’s intention conflicted with the outcome of his/her action. We also study the effect of L2 on other types of reasoning, such as magical thinking based on superstitious beliefs.

Object individuation processes

In this study we investigated an attentional indexing system that is specifically involved in object individuation and identification tasks (Leslie et al., 1998; Kaldy & Leslie, 2003; Kibbe & Leslie, 2011, 2013). We use the violation of expectation parasdigm to test the hypothesis that young infants assign distinct object files based only on dynamic information.  

Internal collaborations

Laura Franchin, Research scientist
Kostantinos Hadjichristidis, Associate professor
Francesco Margoni, post-doc

External collaborations

Marek Meristo, University of Gotheborg, Sweeden
Shoji Itakura, Univerisity of Kyoto, Japan
Gergely Csibra, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary
Janet Geipel, Chicago University, USA
Gary Morgan, City University, London, UK

Selected publications

  • Geraci, A. e Surian, L. (2011). The developmental roots of fairness: Infants’ reactions to equal and unequal distributions of resources. Developmental Science, 14, 1012-1020. Scopus: 2-s2.0-80051935816. ISI; WOS:000294181600009.
  • Surian, L. & Geraci, A.  (2012). Where will the triangle look for it? Attributing false beliefs to a geometric shape at 17 months. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30, 30-44. Scopus: 2-s2.0-84858598411. ISI: WOS:000301569600003
  • Meristo, M., Morgan, G., Geraci, A., Iozzi, L., Hjelmquist, E., Surian, L. e Siegal, M. (2012). Belief attribution in deaf and hearing infants. Developmental Science, 15, 633-640. Scopus: 2-s2.0-84865544091. ISI: WOS:000308038600004
  • Meristo, M., e Surian, L. (2013). Do Infants detect indirect reciprocity? Cognition, 129, 102-113. Scopus: 2-s2.0-84880645385. ISI: WOS:000324085100011
  • Morgan, G., Meristo, M., Mann, W., Hjelmquist, E., Surian, L., e Siegal, M. (2014). Mental state language and quality of conversational experience in deaf and hearing children. Cognitive Development, 29, 41-49. Scopus: 2-s2.0-84888414234. ISI: WOS:000332050900004
  • Meristo, M. e Surian, L. (2014). Infants distinguish antisocial actions directed towards fair and unfair agents. PLoSONE, 5, e110553.  Scopus: 2-s2.0-84908032035. ISI: WOS:000343210800094. IRIS: 11572/99934
  • Geipel, J., Hadjichristidis, C. e Surian, L. (2015a). How foreign language shapes moral judgment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 59, 8-17. Doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.02.001
  • Geipel, J., Hadjichristidis, C. e Surian, L. (2015b). The foreign fanguage effect on moral judgment: The role of emotions and norms. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131529. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131529.
  • Meristo, M., Strid, K., e Surian, L. (2016). Preverbal infants’ ability to encode the outcome of distributive actions. Infancy, 21, 353-372. doi: 10.1111/infa.12124 
  • Geipel, J., Hadjichristidis, C. e Surian, L. (2016). Foreign language affects the contribution of intentions and outcomes to moral judgment. Cognition, 154, 34-39.