One-Year-Olds Can Tell How Food Connects People

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Photo: Tom Kelley/Getty Images

One of the most remarkable things about babies is that, even before they’re forming sentences, they’re starting to mentally map out the structure of their worlds, separating people and things into conceptual groups. Psychologists call this process “categorization,” and it’s why if you bring a one-year-old to the zoo, they don’t call an aardvark a ball, they call it a dog — it has four legs and a snout, after all.

Toddler categorization is even more sophisticated than their word choice might indicate. This is put into special light in a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where Cornell assistant professor Katherine Kinzler and her colleagues found that one-year-olds can see the links between people’s identities and the foods they like. Over several experiments, the researchers brought 200 one-year-olds into the lab and tracked their gazes, which developmental psychologists take to be a proxy for what babies are thinking about. Like when you see someone very hot or very strange on the subway, toddlers can’t help but stare at what they’re thinking about, and they’re more likely to fixate on things that surprise them. The researchers used this pattern to infer babies’ expectations: If they saw someone hate a food that someone else said they loved, they’d look longer, since it was so novel.

Writing about the experiments in the New York Times, Kinzler relates further fascinating findings: If the people in the videos acted like they hated each other the tots thought that they’d like to eat different things, while if they acted friendly, the babies thought they’d like the same foods. Family background seems to play a big role, too: Kids from families who spoke only English thought that if two people spoke different languages, they’d like different foods, while kids from bilingual households thought that people speaking different languages might like the same things to eat. “It was as if cultural lines were being drawn right in the laboratory,” Kinzler writes. “And in the babies’ minds there seemed to be something special about the link between culture and food: When the babies saw people liking and disliking inedible objects, we didn’t observe the same patterns of results.”

It’s further evidence of how parents shape patterns of cognition in kids: Well before they can tell their parents about it, children are receiving a worldview through their families. So if you want your kids to eat (and probably live) broadly, model it for them. If your friends have boring taste, blame their parents.