Toddlers’ food preferences are a baffling mystery. On the one hand, children under the age of two are the most likely age group to accidentally poison themselves, for example by deciding that guzzling laundry detergent is a good idea. But when parents try to talk them into nutrient-dense, non-lethal options, toddlers can have a seizure.
According to a new study, toddlers may actually have some logic to their apparent feeding frenzy — at least some logic. By watching how toddlers react to people’s food preferences, researchers found that the little ankle biters seem to make generalizations about good food and who they will like based on social identities. Toddlers expected people in the same social groups to like the same foods and were surprised when they didn’t. But if one person first expressed a dislike for food, toddlers seemed to expect everyone else to follow, regardless of social identity.
The findings, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencessuggest that toddlers absorb social information about food choices and may be particularly sensitive to any cues that food is bad or perhaps dangerous. While more research is needed on toddlers’ gut feelings about food, the authors speculate that campaigns to improve children’s nutrition could be better served by including social aspects of eating rather than just nutritional information.
This broad speculation is not entirely new. Researchers have known for some time that toddlers look to those around them to gather information about edibles. Children make their smartest food decisions in situations that provide context for eating, the authors point out. They eat more when they are around people eating and learn what foods are safe by watching others. Toddlers may also preferentially eat foods they’ve paired with positive, outgoing people they’ve encountered. These social cues may play a role in long-term health, as evidenced by epidemiological data suggesting that obesity spreads through social networks.
All those bits of data indicated that social aspects of eating played a role in children’s food choices. But the authors of the new study (led by Zoe Liberman, a psychologist at the University of Chicago) wanted to know if those tidbits were part of a reasoning system in toddlers’ developing noggins.
To try to clear up that suspicious system, Liberman and colleagues got 32 toddlers, each about 14 months old, to watch movies with two actors in them. The actors were shown to like or dislike a dish or object, in this case a bowl. The actors indicated their preferences with big, obvious gestures, such as smiling and exclaiming “Ooh, I like that!” Based on the toddlers’ attention to the responses, the researchers concluded that the toddlers didn’t care if the two actors had different opinions about the scale. But when the actors disagreed about the food they ate, with one liking it and the other disliking it, the tots seemed thrown. It seemed they had tried to generalize about the food, but not about the object.
To see if other social cues influenced the toddlers’ assumptions, the researchers showed another group of 32 toddlers new movies. In this, the two actors were either friendly with each other or turned away from each other before voicing their opinions about food. In these films, the first actor always loved the food. The toddlers seemed unmoved when the quarreling couple disagreed whether the food was good, but the toddlers were stunned when the friendly couple disagreed.
A similar pattern emerged when the researchers showed yet another group of toddler films with Spanish- and English-speaking actors, with the first actor always loving the food. As before, the toddlers yawned when actors who spoke the same language disagreed on a dish, but not when actors who spoke different languages disagreed. Thus, the authors concluded that, “although infants can learn about palatability by watching people eat, knowing that a food is edible does not lead them to expect all humans to like it. Rather, infants generalize food preferences for some people, but not for others.”
That wasn’t the case when the researchers flipped the scenarios and showed the first actor disgusted by a dish. In that scenario, the toddler seemed surprised if the second actor liked the food, even if they seemed to be fighting with the first actor. “Seeing opinions about food aversions as universally shared could be a useful strategy that eventually allows babies to make their own safe choices,” the authors speculate.
In summary, the authors conclude that the study’s findings “reveal the deeply social nature of human thinking about food, which could have real-world implications.”
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences2016. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1605456113 (About DOIs).