Young babies notice and assess the actions of those around them and use this to decide who they want as play partners, according to groundbreaking research described in the November 22, 2007 Nature. They learn to read people long before they learn how to talk.
In this study, the babies were shown a character trying to climb (or descend) a hill. On the third attempt, another character comes along who bumps the first character toward the goal or who gets in the first character’s way. When presented with the characters afterwards, 10-month-old and 6-month-old babies had strong preferences for the helper characters. They demonstrated a sophisticated and powerful social awareness.
The test was repeated, introducing a neutral character, independently moving toward the same goal, but not interacting with the first character. The babies strikingly preferred the helpful character to the neutral one, and preferred the neutral character to the one who got in the way.
We may think that because babies are too young to talk, or to understand words, that they don’t “get” what is going on in front of them. This study suggests that they understand actions, interactions, and body language long before they understand words. They are studying how we behave, and in particular how we behave toward one another. And they are always learning.
Perhaps, parents’ making it a habit to help and support each other (and other kids) is a powerful way for each to connect with a new baby and to build closeness throughout a family.
Hamlin JK, Wynn K, and Bloom P. Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature. 22 November 2007. 450:567-560.