Baby Food for Thought

August 11, 2016

UC Santa Barbara Professor Zoe Liberman finds infants learn about food preferences — what’s good, what’s bad and who will eat what — in a social context

(Santa Barbara, Calif.) — If you want your baby to love broccoli, you better love it, too, because that tiny human is watching you to learn which foods are good and bad. That’s one of the takeaways in anew paper by a UC Santa Barbara researcher who investigated the way infants reason in socially smart ways about food.

“A main finding from this research is that babies learning about food is fundamentally social. When they see someone eat a food, they can use the person’s reaction to the food to learn about the food itself, such as whether it is edible, and also to learn about the people who are eating the food,” said Zoe Liberman, an assistant professor in UCSB’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Past studies, she noted, suggested that babies weren’t especially smart thinkers when it came to food. As any parent will tell you, they’ll put just about anything in their mouths, even if it’s poisonous.

But infants’ thinking about food, Liberman said, is more much more sophisticated than we’ve given them credit for. In addition to learning about whether foods are generally good vs. bad, which is a skill humans share with other animals (including chimpanzees and rats), babies’ expectations about food preferences, she explained, are fundamentally social. Babies understand that what someone eats can provide information about that person’s social group. “Babies don’t just learn that a food is good, they learn that a specific kind of people like that food. For example, we found that if infants see an English-speaker like a food, they expect other English-speakers to agree, but don’t necessarily think somebody who speaks a different language, like Spanish, will agree.”

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