Even before babies have language skills or
much information about social structures, they can infer whether others are
likely to be friends by observing their likes and dislikes, a new University of Chicago
study on infant cognition has found.
The results offer a new window into humans’
earliest understanding of the social world around them and suggest that even
nine-month-old infants can engage in reasoning about whether the people they
observe are friends.
“This is some of the first evidence that
young infants are tracking other people’s social relationships,” said Amanda L
Woodward, the William S. Gray Professor of Psychology and a co-author of the
study. The paper, “Friends or Foes: Infants Use Shared Evaluations to Infer
Others’ Social Relationships,” was published online by Journal of Experimental
inhibits how babies learn
Salient social information
In this study, 64 nine-month-old infants
were randomised into groups and then watched videos showing two adults. The
adults each ate two foods and reacted in either a positive or a negative way to
each food they ate. In some videos the adults shared the same reactions, while
in others they reacted differently.
“We depicted evaluations of food because
food may provide particularly salient social information,” noted co-author
Katherine D Kinzler, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Psychology.
“Eating with family and friends is inherently social, and so infants might be
particularly inclined to use eating behaviours to make inferences about social
To investigate whether infants linked food
reactions to social relationships, the experiment examined how infants
responded to subsequent videos, which showed the same adults acting either
positively or negatively toward each other. In the video showing a positive
interaction, the adults greeted each other with smiles and said “Hi!” in a
friendly tone of voice. In the other video, the adults turned away from each
other, crossed their arms and said “Hmph” in an unfriendly tone.
The research team assessed the infants’
reactions to the videos by measuring the amount of time the babies focused on a
still screen at the end of each video. Two sets of trained observers coded the
infants’ attention. Researchers have found previously that the duration of a
baby’s gaze is related to how familiar or unexpected a situation seems to them.
“When babies see something unexpected, they
look longer,” explained Woodward. “It’s out of place for them, and they have to
make sense of it.”
make brains light up
The infants’ responses to the videos
suggested that they were surprised when adults who liked the same foods behaved
negatively toward each other. They also were surprised when adults who disagreed
about the foods behaved like friends.
The study’s implication is that even at the
early age of nine months, babies know that adults who agree with each other
tend to act in a friendly way in other contexts. Infants in the study predicted
that people who reacted similarly to the two foods were likely to be friends
and were taken off-guard when the videos showed something different.
“This study raises questions on how babies
think about who gets along and who doesn’t,” said lead author Zoe Liberman, a
University of Chicago doctoral student in psychology. “Parents will be interested to know
that babies are keeping track of what’s going on in the world around them and
are making inferences about social interactions that we previously were not
aware of before this study.”
“I was surprised to find that babies at
this age showed such strong responses,” Woodward said.
The findings provide the first evidence
that the roots of a critical aspect of social cognition, reasoning about other
people’s social interactions based on those people’s likes and dislikes, can be
traced to infancy, according to the authors. They plan future research to look
at what other types of cues help infants make these social inferences.
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