Even babies know food is a cultural, social event

Posted September 14

Food binds people together in good times and bad. Food is central to how people comfort each other and also to how they celebrate. Eating is also a favorite pursuit when people gather to socialize.

And even babies recognize food's "social nature," according to new research from the University of Chicago that is published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Babies pay close attention to what food is being eaten around them — and especially who is eating it.... The study adds evidence to a growing body of research suggesting even very young children think in sophisticated ways about subtle social cues," says Medical News Today of the research.

"Even 1-year-old babies understand that people’s food preferences depend on their social or cultural group," writes one of the researchers, Katherine Kinzler, in the New York Times Sunday Review. "Interestingly, we found that babies’ thinking about food preferences isn’t really about food per se. It’s more about the people eating foods, and the relationship between food choice and social groups."

They found that infants "expect people to share food preferences unless they belong to different social groups. Their understanding changes when it comes to disgust toward a food, with infants expecting such reactions to transcend the boundaries of social groups."

According to study lead author Zoe Liberman, who led the research as a doctoral student in Chicago, but who is now an assistant professor at University of California Santa Barbara, "Even before infants appear to make smart choices about what substances to ingest, they form nuanced expectations that food preferences are fundamentally linked to social groups and social identity."

Researchers aren't mind-readers and children that young cannot state what they're thinking clearly, but it's long been noted that babies look longest and most intently at the things that surprise them. The researchers used that fact in gauging the response of more than 200 babies, measuring their reactions as they watched pairs of people interact and eat food.

"If the two people featured acted as if they were friends, or if they spoke the same language, babies expected that the people would prefer the same foods. But if the two people acted as if they were enemies, or if they spoke two different languages, babies expected that they would prefer two different foods."

They didn't see that difference in expectation when they measured it using non-food items.

According to the authors, the study "has important implications for policymakers working on pubic health, particularly obesity. The findings underscore the need to look beyond just teaching children which foods are healthy when combating obesity to focus on the social nature of decisions surrounding what to eat," according to a news release from the University of Chicago written by Mark Peters.

"For humans, food choice is a deeply social and cultural affair. These new findings show that infants are tuning into critical information for understanding the social world, as well as for reasoning about food," said another of the researchers, Amanda L. Woodward, the William S. Gray Professor of Psychology at University of Chicago.

The Medical News Today piece concluded with a thought from Kinzler: "And parents might consider that their children are watching as they eat together. If you feed your child the perfect diet, yet your child sees you and your friends and family eating junk food, she is presumably learning about foods from her social experiences, too."

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