Regarding brain development, the first few years of life are when hundreds of skills are being acquired, and virtually thousands of neuronal connections are being made. A common question in neuroscience when it comes to babies and their developing brains is "What do babies know, and when do they know it?"
New research from the Cognition and Development Lab at Washington University in St. Louis reveals that babies can determine what another person's preference is by understanding the consistency of their behavior. Babies actually pay close attention to the actions of those around them, and when those choices are inconsistent with what they normally do, even very young infants will notice and be surprised by those choices.
The concept of consistency is one that the team wanted to investigate. When babies observe consistent behavior from adults, they tally up that behavior mentally, keeping track of how often a person expresses a preference and using that information to predict future behavior. Study co-author Lori Markson, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Cognition & Development Lab explained, "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. Make the same choice three or four times in a row, and babies as young as eight months come to view that consistent behavior as a preference."
The consistency factor is important in brain development because it's a building block of higher learning. Understanding how others around them act is a sign that babies can understand another's behavior and think outside of themselves. Since babies under a year cannot speak coherently and say what they are feeling, development experts used to believe that infants don't understand the preferences and behavior of others and are not cognitively able to see a situation from another person's point of view. In the past decade, research has proven that assumption to be false as researchers now know that how long a baby spends looking at an action or object is an indicator that the child is surprised or puzzled by behavior that is inconsistent with their previous experience.
The team in St. Louis tracked the "looking times" of babies when they observed an actor choosing one of two toys (a yellow duck or a brown and white dog). In one part of the experiments babies watched a person consistently select same toy (the duck or the dog, it didn't matter as long as the choice was consistent) Then they observed an actor who chose the same toy three times, but on the fourth time, selected the other toy. Babies looked 50% longer at this action, indicating that they had learned the actor's preference. This was corroborated in a later part of the experiment when an actor who had consistently chosen, for example, the yellow duck, asked the baby to hand them a toy. The babies were able to remember the preference of the yellow duck and would give that actor the toy they believed was their preference.
The study involved 60 healthy, full-term infants between the ages of 7 and nine months, evenly split between boys and girls. Dr. Markson summed up the results stating, "Our study is the first one to show how inconsistent choices affect infants' understanding about others' preferences. Based on these findings, we hope to further explore how ratios of consistent/inconsistent choices matter to infants and eventually compare infants' understanding to adults' knowledge about others' choices." The study appears in the journal Infancy. Check out the video below to hear more from the researchers about their study and how it was conducted.