Hyowon Gweon

Stanford University

Research Focus 

Hyowon Gweon is broadly interested in how humans learn and help others learn in social contexts: What are the cognitive capacities that make human social learning distinctively rich and powerful, and how do these capacities develop in early childhood? Her research brings together behavioral, computational, and neural methods, aiming to provide a unified description of the cognitive mechanisms that support the representations and inferential processes that allow us to learn about the world and share what we know. 

My plans for the fellowship period 

We often treat social learning as an easier alternative to individual, asocial learning; we learn from others without the costs of exploration by imitating others’ behaviors or trusting others’ testimony. Yet, human knowledge is abstract, structured, and theory-like; it cannot be directly copied or transferred. My research suggests that human social learning is inferential at its core; even young children learn by drawing rich inferences from information provided by others, treating their behaviors as useful information about the world.

As a Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow, I look forward to extending my work in a few key directions. First, I will extend the scope of what we learn via social learning by studying how children harness social information to learn not just about the external world but also about the inner world (i.e., the self). Second, I will extend the scope of what counts as “information” by studying how children use others’ emotional expressions to guide their learning and exploration. Third, I will extend the scope of social learning beyond teacher-learner interactions by studying how children leverage social information to make better decisions. These new directions will benefit tremendously from active discussions and collaborations with other fellows. 

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives? 

For decades, for both researchers and the general public, social learning primarily meant imitation or pedagogy, with young children as passive recipients in this picture. However, such characterization fails to capture the active nature of social learning and how children draw rich inferences from a wide range of information in social contexts.  

My work will change children’s lives via influencing how scientists, parents, and educators think about what children learn from others and how they learn from others. For instance, even though we routinely use a rich array of emotional expressions in our interactions with children, exactly what children can infer from these expressions remains poorly understood. Furthermore, despite the importance of a healthy self-concept in educational outcomes and long-term well-being, we still understand little about how children engage in social learning to construct a coherent sense of the self that incorporates their abilities, traits, and potentials.  

By working towards a more “active” model of social learning that appreciates the role of children’s inferential abilities and social cognitive capacities, I believe we can change how parents, educators, and the general public think about what it means to learn from others and how best to foster learning environments that maximize the benefits of social learning.