Early life and education
He has worked to identify the unique cognitive and cultural processes that distinguish humans from their nearest primate relatives, the other great apes. He studies the social cognition of great apes at the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center in Leipzig. In his developmental research he has focused on how human children become cooperating members of cultural groups, focusing in recent years on uniquely human skills and motivations for shared intentionality: joint intentions, joint attention, collaboration, prosocial motives, and social norms.
Tomasello also works on child language acquisition as a crucially important aspect of the enculturation process. He is a critic of Noam Chomsky's universal grammar, rejecting the idea of an innate universal grammar and instead proposing a functional theory of language development (sometimes called the social-pragmatic or usage-based approach to language acquisition) in which children learn linguistic structures through intention-reading and pattern-finding in their discourse interactions with others.
Origins of human cognition
Tomasello argues that human cognition is special in that humans contain several cognitive capacities that non-humans do not. Most notably the capacity to understand that others have intentions of their own (intentional action), the capacity to share attention with others (joint attention), and the capacity to imitate others. Tomasello also explains that humans develop special cognitive abilities (compared to non-humans) as a result of their socio-cultural environments, which is described through the cultural intelligence hypothesis. These special cognitive abilities are also formed based on an individual’s social environment.
Tomasello gathered evidence to prove that only humans share two dimensions of cognition: reading intentions and interacting with others socially. Reading intentions leads to understanding and acquiring linguistic symbols, because “learning and use of symbols requires understanding that a partner can voluntarily direct actions and attentions to outside entities.”  This shows intentional action can be made by humans as long as they have a goal. Intentional action is how an organism acts so as to bring reality (as it perceives it) into line with its goals. The simple way of showing the process of intentional action can be seen in this simplified model: “goal determines action, which changes perception (feedback), which (when compared to goal) again determines action.”  A person wants to achieve a desired outcome and must perform an action to achieve this desired outcome. Depending on the end result, another action may or may not take place.
Tomasello says a crucial part of this process is the continual perceptual monitoring that must take place, since an organism must see “(1) what is the current reality (information it uses continuously), (2) whether it executed the action intended, and (3) the result produced by the action.” This means that the organism is not aware of all factors going on around it, but instead is only paying attention to its own desired outcome. This leads to an additional theory that organisms have intentional perception, also known as selective attention.
Joint attention is another cognitive capacity Tomasello explores. Joint attention is when two individuals share the same attention on a particular object. This could be done through an action, like pointing, gazing, or showing body movement directed toward another object or by verbally letting another organism know what to look at. Tomasello found evidence to prove that infants can begin to engage in joint attentional interactions because they understand that others around them are also agents of joint attention. This is unique because it means that infants have the capacity to identify with adults and distinguish the underlying goal of those around the infants through their actions. This is different from the idea that infants just acknowledge external motives and respond to these actions without true understanding.
Another social-cognitive revolution that has been explored by Tomasello is the idea of imitation. Infants can see different ways to achieving a goal, and follow the actions of others to achieve the goal. Infants from 9 to 12 months begin to observe the actions of adults around them and imitate their actions. This means that infants observe an action, identify the underlying goal, and mimic the means of achieving the goal that they observe. In their 1998 study, Tomasello and colleagues conducted an experiment which proved 16-month-old infants only copied the intentional actions of adults, ignoring the accidental actions. This shows that children reproduce actions only to achieve the intended end result, and they do not just mimic actions that have no meaning behind them. Humans have been able to preserve their cognitive abilities throughout history, allowing future generations to imitate and continue developing.
Tomasello explains how humans have developed unique cognitive abilities by proposing the cultural intelligence hypothesis, which states that humans develop these unique abilities because they are able to use social-cognitive skills to exchange knowledge in cultural groups. Through this argument, Tomasello proposes that because humans are able to absorb and share knowledge, they continue to develop, while non-humans' abilities may remain stagnant. This differs from the general intelligence hypothesis, which argues that humans possess unique cognitive abilities simply because they have larger brains than non-humans and therefore more intelligence. In order to test his hypothesis, Tomasello and other researchers used a Primate Cognition Test Battery (PCTB) which analyzes the difference between physical cognition and social cognition. According to Tomasello’s theory (cultural intelligence hypothesis), humans and non-humans should at some point share similar physical cognition abilities, while their social cognition abilities should be more advanced, whereas the general intelligence hypothesis would argue that humans should have large advantages for both types of cognition. Results of the study provided strong support for Tomasello’s cultural intelligence hypothesis, as young children performed similarly to chimpanzees on many physical cognition tasks but far outperformed them on social cognition tasks.
Tomasello also explains that the environment in which humans grow plays a major role in their development of cognition. He argues that children grow up and learn in a very interactive environment that is facilitated by their caregivers. Tomasello gives an example of the impact of environment when he cites how a child being raised on a desert island, isolated from social interaction, would have cognition similar to that of apes. Whereas growing up in a culture with people teaching language and other subjects would provide the child with a more interactive life, creating a more complex way of thinking. Passing down this knowledge of social interaction allows for a bigger sense of collaboration, creating a more developed cognition from generation to generation. This ability of joint interaction keeps developing over time and is crucial for the improvement of human cognition.
Tomosello also argues that “humans beings are biologically adapted for culture in ways other primates are not,” specifically citing the social learning skills humans possess. He believes that this adaptation for culture begins in human ontogeny at 12 months, since this is when infants begin to understand intentional action. Adaptability for culture allows children to gain their own knowledge and understanding of the world and begin to develop cultural evolution’s most important outcome: language.
Tomasello’s work on early language acquisition and development differs from many nativists, such as Noam Chomsky, in that his findings show a usage-based theory of language acquisition. This differs from the nativists who argue for the existence of a universal based grammar system, in which humans are born with certain innate linguistic structures that allow them to learn any language, regardless of which culture in which they are born.
In Tomasello’s Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, he explains that theories of language acquisition have developed greatly from Chomsky’s initial universal grammar theory. He explains that most developmental psychologists initially supported the continuity hypothesis for language development—that basic linguistic representations are the same throughout all stages of child language development.
Recently though, psychologists have been proposing that language is more of an integration with other cognitive and social-cognitive skills. This kind of language development is the “usage based theory” and explains that there are two sets of skills children have that allow them to acquire and develop their language: intention-reading, and pattern-finding, both of which develop around 9–12 months of age.
Intention-reading gives children the ability to share attention with other speakers, allowing them to interpret what they are saying. Additionally, it gives children the ability to direct others attention to various objects. It is a necessary skill for children to acquire linguistic symbols. At 9–12 months, human infants understand the social world and begin to understand intention. Children respond to many different cues when recognizing adult referential intentions, showing flexible understanding.
When an adult refers to an object or directly signals at one, a child can discern this through intentional reading. Pattern-finding gives children the ability to form conceptual categories of similar objects, and the ability to form schemas of recurring or ongoing patterns. Additionally, it also allows children to form analogies across different categories. Pattern-finding is a necessary skill for language acquisition as it allows children to identify patterns in language, and to form grammatical dimensions of human language.
The usage-based theory emphasizes that the central tenet of language processing comes from actual language use. The theory holds that the essence of language is in its symbolic dimension, with grammar being secondary. Grammar is created through a process Tomasello calls grammaticalization, where sentence and phrase structures are produced through continual language use. This allows for new function words to be created, which means there can be additional meanings of words.
Tomasello argues that all of this acquisition is done through cognitive processes, and that certain universal linguistic structures are created because all humans use these same cognitive processes. As mentioned above, intention-reading and pattern-finding are the two most general processes. More specific sets of processes are cultural learning, schematization, entrenchment, and functionally based distributional analysis.
Cultural learning accounts for how children learn conventional linguistic structures. Cultural learning depends on how cultural aspects impact the children it surrounds. Thus, cultural learning is not passed biologically from one generation to the next, but learned through participation and interaction. Schematization accounts for how children create abstract syntactic structures. Through exemplar learning and retention, permanent abstract schemas emerge over time. Entrenchment accounts for how children use the structures that are relevant for their language. Entrenchment is the establishment of a unit through repetition and is a domain-general process. This means entrenchment can be applied to different elements, including phonemes, syllables, words, or an interactional pattern (such as a song or poem). To entrench a word, there must be an established link between the word, its meaning, and context of use. Functionally distributional analysis accounts for how they put together/phrase their sentences with different word types. Tomasello argues that all of these processes allow children to construct language, from the language that they hear around them.
As explained above, Tomasello’s usage based theory of language acquisition argues that language is acquired and developed through accumulated experience. The process of entrenchment explains how children develop more advanced language, but Tomasello attempted to study how children acquire the more basic aspects of their language during early childhood. He felt that the study of the acquisition of simple linguistic units could reveal a lot about the overall process of language acquisition. According to Tomasello, classic usage-based theories “explicitly recognize that human-beings learn and use many relatively fixed, item-based linguistic expressions such as ‘How-ya-doin?’” And that these are stored and used in the future as single units. He argues that these psycholinguistic units are recognized through language use, which in children begins with an utterance. An utterance “is a linguistic act in which one person expresses toward another, within a single intonation contour, a relatively coherent communicative intention in a communicative context.”
Tomasello believes that utterances are the most fundamental linguistic unit. As children start to develop the understanding of communicative intentions, and intentional acts, they begin to understand utterances. This all takes place within joint attentional formats and settings. This initial understanding of utterances is where the process of language acquisition begins. As children become older and start to form their own sentences, Tomasello explains that depending on the situation, they will use whatever utterance they have previously mastered and is most readily available. When they encounter a situation in which they do not have an appropriate utterance stored, they will attempt to retrieve other previously stored expressions and “cut and paste” them together to make them relevant.
Tomasello notes that often children can get too “creative” in their cutting and pasting, that their expression does not make sense. So it is important for them to also keep in mind conventional communicative functions, and to adhere to them. Tomasello calls this cutting and pasting method, “usage-based syntactic operations.” This process of putting together previously mastered utterances to accommodate new situations is a crucial process in developing and advancing language.
One of Tomasello’s primary areas of research is primate cognition. Throughout his academic career Tomasello has argued that the study of primate cognition can reveal a lot about the relationship between humans and other primates, as well as cognitive science as a whole. He explains that historically, cognitive scientists have not paid close enough attention to the study of primate cognition, when in reality the two are identical in many ways. Tomasello would argue that all researchers have long neglected primate cognition, though more recently it has become an increasingly common field of study. Today, many researchers are discovering that the study of primate cognition can reveal significant information about evolutionary changes and adaptations in all primates. Additionally, many researchers are discovering that other primates already possess the most basic cognitive processes that humans use. Many of the more advanced processes are unique to humans, though.
Tomasello explains that almost all researchers would agree that all primates perceive physical objects in space the same way. Recent research shows that primates perform well on Piagetian object permanence tasks, which shows that they understand that objects exist even after they are out of physical sight. Additionally, primates are shown to have an understanding of object identity. Other research Tomasello has conducted shows that primates also have the ability to form perceptual categories—almost as accurately as humans, after having received training. Primates are also able to mentally quantify objects, as research has shown that they are able to correctly differentiate between an object with more items inside it from one with less. Tomasello explains that this is a process many thought was only possessed by humans.
Tomasello also explains that recent research has shown that many primates have the ability to understand causality—how the use of one object brings about a certain effect. Old studies showed that non-human primates did not possess this ability, which Tomasello believes is due to a lack of prior direct learning experiences with the object being used. Newer research has shown that primates do have this ability, in certain situations. For example, studies have shown that chimpanzees were able to learn to move a reward over a solid surface, as opposed to over a trap. They were then able to transfer this knowledge to a new situation where the cues were changed—illustrating that they do have some understanding of causality. Additional studies have shown that chimpanzees are able to infer the location of food, based on their understanding of its weight and surroundings, again exemplifying their understanding of causality.
Tomasello explains that much like causality, many believe that non-human primates have no sense of past or future time. But recent studies have shown that chimpanzees learn very quickly to save a tool that they know may have an important future use, an example of them planning for the future. This action shows that they have a sense of time other than just the present.
Moving beyond physical space, Tomasello, unlike many other researchers, believes that non-human primates do understand the behavior of others—in terms of goals and intentions, and perception and knowledge. Recent research has shown that often chimpanzees base their reactions not on the sole behavior of others, but on their underlying goals. For example, Tomasello explains that chimpanzees react differently when a human is not giving them food because they choose not to, as opposed to when they are not giving them food because they are not able to. They will have a much more negative reaction to the first, as they are able to read and interpret their negative intentions. Studies have also shown that when chimpanzees are attempting to imitate, they will often act out the person's intended action, rather than their actual action. Recent studies have also shown that chimpanzees take into account perception and knowledge of the person they are communicating with. For example, chimpanzees will often change their movements or positioning, based on what that person can see—illustrating that they are taking into account their perception.
Tomasello has been able to do further research in chimpanzee and primate cognition. In "The Learning and Use of Gestural Signals by Young Chimpanzees: A Trans-generational Study", he specifically looked at the gestural communication between primates. He used his studies on infant cognition and children’s ability to understand intention and applied it to juvenile chimpanzees. Tomasello wanted to see in what context chimpanzees used their gestures. This research found that infant chimps used similar gestures in different contexts and would adjust the gestures depending on the attention they wanted to receive. Another question asked by Tomasello was how these chimpanzees acquired these movements. It was seen that the individual gestures made by these young chimpanzees were too personalized to prove that chimps were capable of imitation.
All of this more recent research has shown that primates possess cognitive abilities that many thought were too advanced for them. Tomasello firmly believes that the study of primate cognition should be continued and that in the next 30 years after these studies, many gray areas involving specific cognitive capabilities of non-human primates will be made clear. Additionally, he believes that increased research on primate cognition will reveal more about evolution and help explain what exactly makes human cognition so unique and special.
- Guggenheim Fellowship, 1997
- German National Academy of Sciences [elected, 2003]
- Fyssen Foundation Prize, Paris, 2004
- Cognitive Development Society Book Award, 2005 (for Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition)
- Jean Nicod Prize, Paris, 2006
- Mind and Brain Prize, University of Torino, 2007
- Fellow, Cognitive Science Society [elected 2008]
- Hegel Prize, Stuttgart, 2009
- Oswald Külpe Prize, University of Würzburg, 2009
- Max Planck Research Prize [Human Evolution], Humboldt Society, 2010
- Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science, Amsterdam, 2010
- Hungarian National Academy of Sciences [elected, 2010]
- British Academy Wiley Prize in Psychology, 2011
- Klaus Jacobs Research Prize, 2011
- Wiesbadener Helmuth Plessner Prize, 2014
- Tomasello, M. & Call, J. (1997). Primate Cognition. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-510624-4
- Tomasello, M. (1999). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00582-1 (Winner of the William James Book Award of the APA, 2001)
- Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01764-1 (Winner of the Cognitive Development Society Book Award, 2005)
- Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of Human Communication. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-20177-3 (Winner of the Eleanor Maccoby Book Award of the APA, 2009)
- Tomasello, M. (2009). Why We Cooperate. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-01359-8
- Tomasello, M. (2014). A Natural History of Human Thinking. Harvard University Press.
- Biographical information from his official webpage
- 2011 Wiley Prize in Psychology at Wiley.com
- Tomasello, Michael; Carpenter, Malinda; Call, Josep; Behne, Tanya; Moll, Henrike (2005). "Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28: 675–735.
- Tomasello, Michael (2000). "Culture and Cognitive Development". Current Directions in Psychological Science 9 (2): 37–40.
- Haberl, Katharina (2003). "Understanding Attention: 12- and 18-Month-Olds Know What Is New for Other Persons". Developmental Psychology 39 (5): 906–912.
- Carpenter, M.; Akhtar, N.; Tomasello, M. (1998). "14- through 18-month-old infants differentially imitate intentional and accidental actions". Infant Behavior and Development 21: 315–330.
- Herrmann, Esther; Call, Josep; Hernandez-Lloreda, Maria Victoria; Hare, Brian; Tomasello, Michael (2007). "Humans Have Evolved Specialized Skills of Social Cognition: The Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis". Science 317 (5843): 1360–1366.
- Tomasello, Michael (23 July 2011). Michael Tomasello, Max Planck Institute, Leipzig, Germany - Heineken Prize Winner. Interview with Roger Bingham. The Science Network. Retrieved 27 April 2014.
- Hauser, Marc D. (5 May 2000). "'Et tu Homo sapiens?' Rev. of The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, author Micahel Tomasello". Science. pp. 816–817.
- Tomasello, Michael (2005). "The Usage-Based Model in Intention-Reading". Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press.
- Abbot-Smith, Kirsten; Tomasello, Michael (2006). "Exemplar-learning and schematization in a usage-based account of syntactic acquisition". The Linguistic Review 23: 275–290.
- Tomasello, Michael (2000). "First steps toward a usage-based theory of language acquisition". Cognitive Linguistics. 11.1/2: 61–82.
- Tomasello, Michael; Seed, Amanda (2010). "Primate Cognition". Topics in Cognitive Science 2: 407–419.
- Tomasello, Michael; Call, Josep; Nagell, Katherine; Olguin, Raquel; Carpenter, Malinda. "The learning and use of gestural signals by young chimpanzees: A trans-generational study". Primates 35 (2): 137–154.
- Süddeutsche Zeitung. 2 December 2011. p. 18. Missing or empty
- Prizewinners at the German Helmuth Plessner Society (HPG)
- Tomasello, M. and Call, J. (1997). Primate cognition. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Tomasello, Michael. Interview by Roger Bingham. The Science Network. The Science Network, 2011. Web. 27 April 2014. 
- Bybee, Joan. “Entrenchment and Plasticity in Language Structure and Use.” University of New Mexico. Powerpoint.
- Tomasello, Michael (2006). “Why Don’t Apes Point?” Roots of Human Sociality” Culture, cognition, and interaction. 506-524.