Dr Elena Hoicka

Dept of Psychology, University of Sheffield
D Floor, Cathedral Court
1 Vicar Lane
Sheffield S1 2LT, UK
Tel: (+44) 0114 222 6510
Email: E.Hoicka@sheffield.ac.uk


Ph.D. in Psychology, Cardiff University (2007)
Humour and Intention Understanding in 18- to 36-Month-Olds
Awarded the George Butterworth Young Scientist Award for best developmental psychology Ph.D. in Europe for 2007/2008 from the European Society for Developmental Psychology

Hon. B.Sc. in Cognitive Science & Artificial Intelligence (2003)
University of Toronto
Graduated with High Distinction

Research Interests:

My research examines how children come to understand conventional and factual wrongness through mistakes, jokes, pretending, and deception. This is important to (1) learning, (2) intention understanding, and (3) innovation in cultural evolution.

Research on learning focuses on how young children incorporate novel information into their knowledge base. However a complex unresolved problem in philosophy and AI is the Frame Problem: how can one determine what should be learnt, and what should be ignored. My research uses novel paradigms to isolate whether young children can identify wrongness through jokes, as well as whether it can help them avoid learning novel information. My research also examines how parents help toddlers understand when they are being literal, joking, or pretending, and hence when toddlers should take information seriously or not.

My research also uses wrongness as a tool to consider whether young children understand the meaning behind intentions. If people always intended to do the right thing (e.g., drink from a cup), intentions would be confounded with the acts themselves, making intentions no better than action schemas as an explanatory mechanism for others’ behaviour. I use imitation, looking time, and trust paradigms, as well as studies examining parent-child interactions to discover the extent to which infants, toddlers, and preschoolers understand complex intentions, and the meaning behind them. By comparing whether toddlers distinguish when people intend to do the right thing versus when they intend to do the wrong thing, we can identify whether toddlers understand not just that people have intentions, but also the nature and meaning of their intentions, giving intention explanatory value.

Innovation in Cultural Evolution
While research on cultural evolution has focussed on how culture is transmitted, primarily through imitation, little research has considered how innovation develops. While a body of research on creativity exists, pre-verbal children have not previously been tested on such tasks. A key aspect of cultural evolution – how variability develops, is thus missing from the research. My lab has developed (1) a novel a nonverbal, non-representational divergent thinking test, suitable for use with toddlers; and (2) novel experimental procedures which can isolate whether creativity can be socially learnt. This research should have impacts on learning, education, and cultural evolution, and could help understand creative processing in children with communicative delays and disorders.

PhD students


Birsu Kandemiric (2014-):  Effects of Technology and Scaffolding on Children's Creativity (funded by Turkish Government)

Stephanie Powell (2016-):  The effects of technology on young children's creativity (ESRC Studentship)

Burcu Soy (2016-):  The links between humor and social-cognition in young children (funded by Turkish Government)

Sophie Turnbull (Second Supervisor, 2014-):  The development of flexible cognition in children and adults (University of Sheffield Studentship)

Ed Donnellan (Third Supervisor, 2015-):  The role of mental state attribution in social attention (Psychology studentship, University of Sheffield)

Simone Bijvoet-van den Berg (2010-13):  Children's ability to generate novel actions (Psychology Studentship, University of Stirling)

Research Grants

British Academy small research grant:  Developing a parent report measure of social congition from birth to 3 years (PI, £10,000, 2016-18)

Women Academic Returners Programme, Sheffield University: Creating parent report measures of joking, pretending, and deception in toddlers (PI, £10,000, 2016)

Funding from University of Oslo: Project on generics and essentialising (co-I; PI: Jennifer Saul, £10,000, 2015)

Campus Placement Award, Sheffield University: Project on joking and pretending (PI, £750, 2015)

On Campus Placement Award, Sheffield University: Project on humour and word learning (PI, £750, 2014)

On Campus Placement Award, Sheffield University: Project on creativity and lying (PI, £750, 2014)

British Academy small research grant: Intentions, Knowledge, and Trust in 3- and 4-Year-Olds. (PI, £7500, 2011-2012, collaborating with Paul Harris, School of Education, Harvard, and Felicity Malla)

ESRC small research grant: Parents’ Linguistic, Acoustic and non-Verbal Cues for Toddler-Directed Pretense and Humour (PI, £100,000, from 2010-2011)

Named participant for ESRC conference grant XPrag-UK (PI Napoleon Katsos, £40,000, 2010-13).

British Academy small research grant: The acoustic features of parents' pretense and humorous toddler-directed speech. (PI, £5750, 2009-2010)

NIH Postdoctoral Training Grant ($80,000USD, 2006-2008)

Overseas Research Students Awards Scheme (£21,000, 2003-2006)

School of Psychology, Cardiff University Studentship (£40,000, 2003-2006)

Margaret Addison Scholarship ($8,000CDN, 2003)


Award for 3rd highest teaching ratings in Psychology Department, University of Sheffield (2014-15, £100)

Santander Travel Grant – For Horizon 2020 meeting in Frankfurt (PI, £725, 2015)

Award for 2nd highest teaching ratings in Psychology Department, University of Sheffield (2013-14, £100)

Nominated for Inspiration & Co Lectures, for teaching excellence (2013-14)

Nominated for the University of Stirling Student’s Union RATE (Recognising Achievement in Teaching Excellence) award for Excellence in Teaching in the School of Natural Sciences (2013)

Nominated for the University of Stirling Student’s Union RATE (Recognising Achievement in Teaching Excellence) award for Excellence in Teaching in the School of Natural Sciences (2012)

ESRC Festival of Social Science: Joking and Pretending in Toddlers. (Impact Grant, PI, £1655, 2011)

British Science Association Media Fellowship: 4-week placement as a science journalist with the Scotsman, a leading Scottish newspaper, and 3-week placement with the Science Media Centre, a press office for controversial science (£4000, 2011)

George Butterworth Young Scientist Award (for best developmental psychology Ph.D. in Europe for 2007/2008; €500, 2009)

Royal Society conference travel grant (£1250, 2009)

British Academy international travel grant (£500, 2009, declined)

Central European University Summer School Scholarship (€500, 2007)

Grindley Grant for overseas conference attendance (£500, 2006)

BPS developmental section conference bursary (£90, 2006)

BPS research travel scholarship (£400, 2004)

Press Coverage

*My research has extensive worldwide reach, with 6 television appearances, around 100 radio broadcasts, and over 300 mentions on the news and websites


  • BBC Look North, July, 2015: Early Pretending Survey
  • BBC News Channel; Global News Canada, June, 2015: Lying and working memory in children
  • Sky TV Duck Quacks don’t Echo, January, 2014: Expert on deception in children
  • BBC Newsnight Scotland, October, 2011: 5-minute feature on research on joking and pretending
  • Interviewed for: Mind in the Making: The Science of Early Learning. http://familiesandwork.org/site/work/earlychildhood/MITM-overview-090722.pdf


  • Early Learning  Styles Survey, August, 2015: BBC Radio Sheffield
  • Early Pretending Survey, July, 2015: BBC Radio 5, BBC World Service, BBC Radio Scotland; BBC Radio Sheffield,
  • BBC Radio Newcastle, BBC Radio Berkshire
  • Lying & Working Memory, June 2015: BBC Radio 4; BBC Radio 5, BBC World Service; ABC (Australia); all 39 local
  • BBC Radio stations; Downtown Radio in Northern Ireland
  • Early Humour Survey, May, 2015: All 39 local BBC Radio stations; additional interview for BBC Radio Sheffield
  • Christmas Cracker Jokes on the Naked Scientist¸December, 2014: BBC Radio 5; ABC (Australia), BBC Cambridge, Naked Scientist Podcast
  • BBC Radio Scotland's MacAuley and Co. October, 2012-November 2013: 4 radio interviews about scaring children; practical jokes; imagination; engineering toys for girls
  • Joking and Pretend, October, 2011: BBC Good Morning Scotland, Central FM

Newspapers and online:

  • Dad Jokes, August, 2015: Daily Mail
  • Lying & Working Memory, June, 2015: Around 200 sources including BBC Online; Telegraph; Independent; The Times; Daily Mail X 2; Metro; Mirror; Yahoo News UK; Yahoo News India; USA Today; Forbes; Fox News US; Today Online- NBC television; CBS News Online; Sky News Australia; and many more in India, Australia, Malta, Pakistan, etc.
  • Joking & Pretending November, 2011: Over 100 sources including BBC Online, Telegraph, Mirror, Daily Record, Edinburgh Evening News, Toronto Sun
  • Toddlers’ Joking, November, 2012: British Psychology Society Research Digest,
  • Herald, Metro
  • Acoustic Cues to Jokes: February, 2012: British Psychology Society News
  • Toddlers Understand Intentions to Joke: March, 2008: British Psychology Society (BPS) Research Digest; November 2007: APA Monitor

Mentions online, internationally, as well as the following:


A list of key publications can be found below.  For a full list of publications please click here

Journal articles


Conference proceedings papers

  • Hoicka E, Butcher J, Malla F & Harris PL (2013) Preschooler' trust is sensitive to variable intentions.. Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp 591-596). Austin, TX
  • Hoicka E, Bijvoet-van den Berg S, Kerr T & Carberry M (2013) The Unusual Box test: A non-verbal, non-representational divergent thinking test for toddlers.. AAAI Conference on Creativity and (Early) Cognitive Development. Palo Alto, CA
  • Hoicka E & Gattis M (2010) Wrongness and representational thought. 32nd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp 1046-1051). Austin, TX
  • Hoicka E & Campbell R (2010) Abstract and belief-based language differentiate joking, pretending, and literal toddler-directed speech. 32nd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp 1040-1045). Austin, TX

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