Babies Observe Subtle Social Cues at Mealtime

A new study finds that babies expect people to like the same foods, unless those people belong to different social or cultural groups, such as those who speak a different language. The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show just how tightly our food choices are tied to our social thinking.

“Kids are sensitive to cultural groups early in life,” said co-author Dr. Katherine Kinzler, an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University.

“When babies see someone eat, they are not just learning about food, they are also learning about who eats what with whom. An ability to think about people as being ‘same versus different’, and perhaps even ‘us versus them,’ starts very early in life.”

For the study, Kinzler and her co-authors, Zoe Liberman, Amanda Woodward and Kathleen Sullivan, conducted a variety of experiments in which they showed more than 200 one-year-olds a series of videos of people expressing like or dislike of foods.

When two people in the video were speaking the same language or acting as if they were friends, the babies expected them to like the same foods. However, when two people were speaking different languages or acting unfriendly toward each other, the babies expected them to like different foods.

To determine the babies’ expectations, the researchers utilized a well-known fact in developmental psychology: Babies will look longer at novel actions or things that deviate from their general expectations of the world.

The researchers also found that babies may be aware of social cues suggesting that a food might be dangerous. For example, when the babies saw a person act disgusted from a certain type of food, they expected that a second person would also be disgusted by that food — even if the second person was from a different social group. This suggests “infants are particularly vigilant to social information that might signal danger,” the study said.

The researchers also uncovered new information into what babies may identify as meaningful cultural differences. They found that monolingual babies expected people who speak different languages to like different foods, but bilingual babies expected people who speak different languages to eat the same foods.

This may be because bilingual babies experience this at home with people speaking different languages around the table. “Language wasn’t marking groups in the same way for these kids,” Kinzler said.

The findings may have implications for policymakers interested in shifting people’s unhealthy eating habits. “If you’re thinking about places to intervene in people’s eating, framing food selection as a social problem as opposed to a nutritional problem might be a good way to get at it,” Kinzler said.

Finally, parents might want to be aware that their young children are taking in social cues at the dinner table. “If you feed your child the perfect diet, yet your child sees you and your friends and family eating junk food, she is presumably learning about foods from her social experiences, too,” she said.

Source: Cornell University