If you want our baby to love broccoli, you better eat it too!
Parents, take note! If you want your baby to love broccoli, you better like it too, because the little one is watching you to learn which foods are good and bad, researchers say. “A main finding from this research is that babies learning about food is fundamentally social,” said Zoe Liberman from University of California (UC) Santa Barbara in the US. “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,” said Liberman.
She noted that past studies suggested that babies were not especially smart thinkers when it came to food. But according to Liberman, infants’ thinking about food is more much more sophisticated than we’ve given them credit for. In addition to learning about whether foods are generally good versus bad, which is a skill humans share with other animals (including chimpanzees and rats), babies’ expectations about food preferences, she said, are fundamentally social.
Babies understand that what someone eats can provide information about that person’s social group. “Babies do not 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 do not necessarily think somebody who speaks a different language, like Spanish, will agree,” said Liberman. According to her, infants seem to already understand that the foods a person chooses to eat can provide important information about their social identity.
Liberman also found that social reasoning about food is flexible. Whereas infants growing up in monolingual environments refrained from generalising food preferences across people who spoke different languages, infants who grew up in multilingual families continued to generalise food preferences even across people who spoke different languages.
It suggests that even though infants think about food as intimately connected to social relationships and social groups, the exact information that each baby uses to decide whether people are from the same social group may be different, based on their own social experiences, Liberman said. “For instance, whereas monolingual babies might think people who speak different languages are fundamentally different types of people, who may then eat different foods, infants with multilingual exposure may regularly see social interactions between people who speak different languages, and therefore be more flexible in their expectations about who will share food preferences,” she said.
The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.