Do babies know what we like?

Behind the chubby cheeks and bright eyes of babies as young as 8 months lies the smoothly whirring mind of a social statistician, logging our every move and making odds on what a person is most likely to do next, suggests new research in the journal Infancy.

“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,” said study co-author Lori Markson, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences and director of the Cognition & Development Lab at Washington University in St. Louis. “Make the same choice three or four times in a row, and babies as young as 8 months come to view that consistent behavior as a preference.”

The findings demonstrated that infants look for consistent patterns of behavior and make judgments about people’s preferences based on simple probabilities calculated from observed events and actions. Co-led by Yuyan Luo, an associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, the study may shed light on how infants and young children learn about people’s preferences for a certain kind of food, toy or activity. It also might explain why kids always seem to want the toy that someone else is playing with.

“Consistency seems to be an important factor for infants in helping them sort out what’s happening in the world around them,” Markson said. “Our findings suggest that, if a person does something different even a single time, it undoes the notion of someone having a clear preference and changes an infant’s expectations for that individual’s behavior. In other words, if you break the routine, all bets are off in terms of what they expect from you.”

The findings confirmed that infants as young as 8 months already are developing the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to sense what another person may or may not know, think or believe about a situation.

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