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Smarter than you thought: Infants can judge people’s preferences, proves research

Babies are capable of keeping a track of everything that happens in front of them. They look for specific patterns in the behaviour of others.

fitness Updated: Jul 28, 2017 17:00 IST
Babies as young as eight months can guess a person’s next action.
Babies as young as eight months can guess a person’s next action.(Shutterstock)

They may not be able to talk but babies as young as eight months can log our every move and make odds on what a person is most likely to do next, a study suggests. “Even before they can talk, babies are keeping close track of what’s going on in front of them and looking for patterns of activity that may suggest preferences,” said Lori Markson, associate professor at Washington University in the US. Previous research has suggested that singing to babies boosts their attention, and that even at age 1, your child could be headed towards a lifetime of incurable diseases.

“Make the same choice three or four times in a row, and babies as young as eight months come to view that consistent behaviour as a preference,” said Markson. The findings demonstrated that infants look for consistent patterns of behaviour and make judgements about people’s preferences based on simple probabilities calculated from observed events and actions.

The study may shed light on how infants and young children learn about people’s preferences for a certain kind of food, toy or activity. It might also explain why kids always seem to want the toy that someone else is playing with. “Consistency seems to be an important factor for infants in helping them sort out what is happening in the world around them,” Markson said. “Our findings suggest that, if a person does something different even a single time, it undoes the notion of someone having a clear preference and changes an infant’s expectations for that individual’s behaviour.

Ifants look for consistent patterns of behaviour and make judgements about people’s preferences. (Shutterstock)

“In other words, if you break the routine, all bets are off in terms of what they expect from you,” said Markson. The findings confirmed that infants as young as eight months are already developing the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to sense what another person may or may not know, think or believe about a situation. In the study, Markson and Yuyan Luo, an associate professor at University of Missouri-Columbia, conducted a series of experiments to track how infant “looking times” changed when an actor made an unexpected choice between one of two stuffed-animal toys displayed before the infant on a small puppet stage.

The experiments were conducted on a sample of 60 healthy, full-term infants with an even split of males and females ranging in age from seven to nine months and an average age of eight and a half months. Seated on a parent’s lap, the infants watched as a young woman reached out and grabbed one of two stuffed animals on the stage, either a white-and-brown dog or a yellow duck with orange beak and a purple bonnet.

After each four-trial familiarisation phase, the researcher observed the babies’ reactions as the women reappeared on the stage and made a fifth selection, either going back to the previously targeted duck or making a new selection of the dog. Findings confirmed that the babies spent about 50% more time looking at selections that represented a break from consistent patterns made in the familiarisation trials. The study was published in the journal Infancy.

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