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Research at St Andrews

The goal trumps the means: highlighting goals is more beneficial than highlighting means in means-end training

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sarah Gerson, Amanda Woodward

School/Research organisations


Means-end actions are an early-emerging form of problem solving. These actions require initiating initial behaviors with a goal in mind. In this study, we explored the origins of 8-month-old infants’ means-end action production using a cloth-pulling training paradigm. We examined whether highlighting the goal (toy) or the means (cloth) was more valuable for learning to perform a well-organized means-end action. Infants were given the opportunity to both practice cloth-pulling and view modeling of the action performed by an adult throughout the session. Infants saw either the same toy or the same cloth in successive trials, so that the goal or means were highlighted prior to modeling of the action. All infants improved throughout the session regardless of which aspect of the event was highlighted. Beyond this general improvement, repetition of goals supported more rapid learning and more sustained learning than did repetition of means. These findings provide novel evidence that, at the origins of means-end action production, emphasizing the goal that structures an action facilitates the learning of new means-end actions.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)289-302
Issue number2
Early online date25 Jan 2012
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2013

    Research areas

  • Means-end actions, Infant cognition, Goals, Problem-solving, Cognitive development

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