Babies Know What’s Up

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THE SIMPSONS: Maggie Simpson.
Photo: FOX

Babies as young as 13 months seem to be able to follow the complexities of a tense social situation, even showing surprise when those involved don’t behave as expected, suggests a new paper in Psychological Science. You-jung Choi and Yuyan Luo of the University of Missouri did their research by putting on a simple puppet show for 48 infants and their parents. 

The Association for Psychological Science describes Act I this way: 

Two puppets (A and B) appeared on stage and clapped their hands, or hopped around together, allowing the infants to familiarize themselves with the characters and learn that A and B were friendly with each other. 

Then, the infants were presented with a particular social scenario. In one, the infants saw a third puppet, C, approach and get deliberately knocked down by B, as A looked on from the side. In another scenario, B knocked down C, but A wasn’t present. And in a third scenario, C was accidentally knocked down as A looked on. 

Choi and Luo were curious: How would the babies react to subsequent interactions between puppets A and B, and how would those reactions differ according to which version of the show the babies had seen? Obviously, the 13-month-olds couldn’t tell the researchers what they were thinking. But babies (and grown-ups, for that matter) tend to pay more attention to unexpected or surprising actions; accordingly, their gaze doesn’t linger as long on the comparatively boring, expected stuff.

So on went Act II:

If A was a witness to the deliberate hit, the infants seemed to expect A to shun B. They spent more time looking at the puppets when A was “friendly” with B after the hit (wiggling and swaying together) than when A ignored B, suggesting that the friendly interaction was an unexpected turn of events. … If, however, A wasn’t around to see the hit occur, the infants looked longer when A shunned B than when A was friendly to B, indicating that the infants were able to keep track of what A knew and didn’t know and use that information to make inferences about A’s behavior. When the hit was an accident, the infants spent about the same time looking at the puppets in the two outcomes — they seemed to respond to the friendly outcome and unfriendly outcome as equally reasonable. 

This suggests that these 13-month-olds were able to mentally keep track of who did what to whom, whether or not it was an accident, and who saw the whole thing happen. This also suggests that it is maybe not so easy to pull a fast one on a baby, despite rigorous past research suggesting otherwise.