What is it about?

Imagine a baby is out with her parent and a new person comes along. Her parent does something that makes it seem like her parent knows and likes this new person. What would the baby infer? We know from other research that when babies watch others imitate, coordinate actions, help, comfort, or share saliva, they expect them to be socially connected. But does it matter how the baby relates to the people she is watching? In other words, in the example above, does it matter that the baby watches her own parent? We found that it does! Babies distinguish between social interactions that involve their own parents from those that do not. We used digitally edited videos and a yoked control design to answer this question. Parents made videos at home using their webcams by following along to audio instructions. Then we cropped puppets into the video so it looked like the parents were interacting with two puppets. Infants expected social engagement from the puppet that their parent had imitated, but not from a puppet another infant's parent had imitated.

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Why is it important?

Infants are born into large social networks that they must learn about. While previous research has focused on how infants learn about relationships in general, this is a first step in understanding how they learn about their specific social networks.


As a mother, I'm often curious about what my daughter thinks about the interactions I have with new people. Why did it take her so much less time to warm up to my parents than others? This paper suggests that it might be because of my actions toward them. The other really exciting thing about this paper is that almost all cognitive development work shows infants characters who they have no relation to. Figuring out a way to involve their caregivers in the experiment was challenging, but really fun for everyone involved.

Ashley Thomas
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Infants infer potential social partners by observing the interactions of their parent with unknown others, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2121390119.
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