Early Social Cognition Laboratory

Angeline Lillard
Principal Investigator

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Research Personnel

Graduate students
Lili Ma
Tracy Nishida
Ashley Pinkham
Jennifer Van Reet

Jackie Baumann
Leslie Channel
Nicole Domanski
Noemi Kaplan
Jill Lorenzi
Lauren Malloy
Allison Moorman
Laura Pakhry
Meta Pettus
Juliana Schroeder
Laura Sorensen

Current research

Signs of Pretense

For the past few years, we have been deciphering what features distinguish pretend acts from real ones. There must be some features of pretense that babies can pick up on, that make it so babies do not mistakenly confuse pretense acts as a new kind of real act. Something in pretense must serve to signal babies, "interpret this as a different kind of act."

We are investigating a wide array of potential cues, and eliciting a wealth of interesting data. These concern how the voice changes in pretense (using the Computer Speech Lab), how the content of speech changes, how one moves differently in pretense (using the Flock of Birds motion monitor), facial expressions in pretense and whether there is a special type of smile, social referencing in pretense, and so on. We are also examining which of the behavioral changes we see are useful to adults and children in judging whether an act is pretense, and how well babies seem to understand pretense.

Other work is examining the understanding that pretense is symbolic, how appreciation of pretense emerges in infancy, and a multi-site study examining pretense and theory of mind across cultures. Much of our laboratory work overlaps with the issues of concern in Judy DeLoache's laboratory, and collaboration there and elsewhere is encouraged as a student moves through the program.

This research is sponsored by the National Institute of Health.
More about this project


A new area of interest is the application of research in developmental psychology to best practices in schooling. I have identified a number of principles that studies show optimize human development and well-being, and yet which traditional education is not designed to employ. These principles are part of other, nontraditional educational systems, like Montessori. I have a book on this issue (Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Oxford University Press), and have begun studies to compare outcomes of students in Montessori versus matched traditional schools, to see if the institution of these principles makes a practical difference to children's development and learning.

Other Research Interests

Children's Understanding of Pretense

In recent years how children understand the mind has become a very active area of inquiry. What do children know about the causes and consequences of emotions, beliefs, desires, and so on? Within this domain, many believe that pretense plays a special role. Some core questions in this domain are (1) how do children understand pretending? (2) how are individual differences in pretending related to individual differences in understanding minds?

Cultural Variation in Folk Psychology

How might different cultures vary in understanding mental states and processes, and what might such differences imply about how this understanding develops? Are there any bottom-line similarities in how people understand people, the world over? We are beginning work with children from low income black families in Virginia, and continuing work on rural low-income white families, as well as with middle-class urban (largely white) families usually examined in theory of mind research.

Graduate Research Opportunities

If you are interested in coming to UVa for graduate school, please review my laboratory's current research interests and those of others in the department to be sure that you think it is a good fit with your interests. Most years I am open to taking a new student whose interests align well with those of the lab.

Our program includes 2-3 years of semi-structured coursework, a second-year project that is the equivalent of a Master's thesis, and an expectation of participation in research and publishing throughout the 4-6 years of graduate work. Every area in the department has a weekly research-oriented brown-bag lunch, and most labs have active laboratory meetings. The department has great strengths in Developmental Psychology in all areas, leading to its consistently high rankings in surveys of Developmental PhD programs.

The University of Virginia guarantees several years of funding for students who work 10-12 hours a week teaching. I recommend that all students teach 4 semesters, for experience. For more information --

Undergraduate Research Credit

Each semester, from 4 to 6 undergraduate students have the opportunity to earn college credit working in our lab. This is an opportunity to learn about research firsthand, and to work with speech- and motion- analysis hardware and software as well as professional-level video editing equipment. Students gather data, code behaviors, and analyze results in our on-going research. Advanced students may have the opportunity to do a distinguished majors project.

Learn more about
working in our lab.