What do babies think of foreigners?

As parents we’ve all been there: you’re trying to entertain or distract your baby with a toy or a game – but eventually they get bored of it. Something that made their sides split in amusement yesterday (or even just five minutes ago) barely raises a smile now. That thing that you always relied on to cheer up a grumpy baby no longer works? Yeah, that crutch has been kicked away from underneath you, by someone still in nappies. Get used to it.

Every parent has wondered what goes on inside their little heads. What are they thinking about? What do they think about me? Their favourite cuddly toy? Brexit?

So how do you tell what a baby thinks?

It turns out that a baby’s boredom can help reveal the inner workings of their brains – by measuring something called ‘habituation’.

Measuring habituation is a long standing technique, and the principle is simple – something unexpected or surprising will hold a baby’s attention for longer than something they expect. So, if you grab a stopwatch and time for how long something holds a baby’s attention, you can get some idea of their beliefs and expectations – in essence, how a baby thinks.

Our kind of people

This was put to test in a recent study from researchers based at University of British Columbia, Canada. . Scientists know that, subconsciously, people tend to think positively towards people like them (so-called “in-groups”) and negatively towards people dissimilar to them (their “out-groups”). But how does this arise? Are their preferences something that we are born with, or something that we learn over time?

Studying the beliefs of young babies can help determine whether or not those beliefs are innate or not, because they haven’t been in the outside world long enough to learn too much, so they relying a lot more on instinct than adults do. So if a baby holds a certain belief or expectation, then it’s likely an instinct we’re all born with – if not, it’s likely something we learn at some point during our lifetime.

Pardon my French

In this study, researchers in Canada recruited a group of babies of English-speaking parents as their test subjects. They wanted to see whether these babies felt positively towards English speakers (the baby’s ingroup) and negatively towards French speakers (the baby’s outgroup).

They did this by showing the babies one of four short videos, of two puppets playing with a ball. The video starts with Puppet A saying something, either in English or French (“watch what I’m about to do”). Puppet B plays with a ball, and passes it to Puppet A. Then, either one of two things happens – either Puppet A passes it back – which is ‘prosocial’ behaviour, a nice thing to do – or steals it and runs off – which is ‘antisocial’ behaviour, and is behaving badly. Watch the whole reel below to see what I mean:

So to recap there’s four videos – English puppet being nice; English puppet being bad; French puppet being nice; and French puppet being bad.

The babies are shown one of these videos on repeat, and the researchers timed how long it takes for the babies to get bored – testing habituation – and so trying to understand how they expected English- and French-speakers to behave.

Good behaviour

As the researchers expected, the babies got bored quickly of the video of the English puppet being nice. The puppet speaks English like the babies’ parents, and so by association the babies thinks of them positively. Therefore a English puppet doing a nice thing isn’t anything out of the ordinary. Boring for babies.

But they did find the video of the French-speaking puppet being nice quite unexpected. What?! A foreigner doing something nice? Madness! And so this video held their attention for much longer than the ‘English-speakers are good’ video.

What this suggests is that the positive associations with ingroups are innate – babies from English-speaking families are much less surprised with English people doing good things, than with French people doing good things.

Puppets behaving badly

However, are negative associations with outgroups also innate? Are babies born with a sense of ‘stranger danger’ or is it something they learn?

So when babies are shown either of the two videos of the puppets behaving badly (stealing the ball rather than giving it back) – whether the puppet is English-speaking or French-speaking doesn’t make any difference to how long their attention is held.

This suggests that babies do not innately think negatively about outgroups.

Nature or nurture?

What all of this suggests is that our preference for people like us is something we’re born with. But a bias against others is not innate – it’s likely something we learn. And I suppose it’s a positive message, that we are innately prosocial animals, but not naturally antisocial..

This study was looking at language groups (English and French speakers) as examples of ingroups and outgroups, but it’s yet to be seen whether these findings apply more widely to other ways to define these groups. Beyond that, more work needs to be done to understand how the negative perceptions of outgroups arise, if they aren’t something that automatically develop in reaction to the positive perceptions of ingroups.

But I think it’s fascinating that all these questions come out of playing videos of puppets to babies. It’s amazing what’s going through their minds.

Press release from University of British Columbia

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