Infants are able to make out whether other are likely to be friends or not, even before they develop language skills or have an information about social structures, a new study found.
The UChicago study on infant cognition 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," Amanda L. Woodward, the William S. Gray Professor of Psychology and a co-author of the study, said.
In this study, 64 nine-month-old infants were randomized 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.
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 "Hmp" 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.
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.
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.
The study is published online by Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.