Babies Chew on Social, Cultural Cues at Mealtime

Babies Chew on Social, Cultural Cues at MealtimeBabies Chew on Social, Cultural Cues at Mealtime

At the dinner table, babies do a lot more than play with their sippy cups, new research suggests.

Babies pay close attention to what food is being eaten around them -- and especially who is eating it, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study adds evidence to a growing body of research suggesting even very young children think in sophisticated ways about subtle social cues.

The authors found one-year-olds expect people to like the same foods, unless those people belong to different social or cultural groups, such as those that speak a different language.

“The study underscores just how tightly our food choices are coupled with our social thinking,” said Katherine Kinzler, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, reports

According to her, the ability to think about people as being ‘same versus different’, and perhaps even ‘us versus them,’ starts very early in life.

Kinzler and her co-authors set up a series of studies in which they showed more than 200 one-year-olds a series of videos of people expressing like or dislike of foods. When the babies saw two people in the video speak the same language or act as if they were friends, the children expected them to like the same foods. When they saw two people who spoke different languages or acted as if they were unfriendly, the babies expected them to like different foods.

The study also showed babies have a slightly different take when it comes to foods that might harm them. When the babies saw a person act disgusted from eating a 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.

And the researchers discovered an insight into what babies identify as meaningful cultural differences. While monolingual babies expected people who speak different languages to like different foods, bilingual babies expected that people who speak different languages would eat the same foods.

The work may have implications for policymakers interested in shifting people’s unhealthy eating habits.

Parents might consider that their children are watching them eat together, and even if they are fed the perfect diet, they are presumably learning about foods from their social experiences, too.