Infants’ understanding of their social world
Infants’ understanding of their social world

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Infants’ understanding of their social world

1 Observing infants and issues about interpreting these observations

1.1 Observations and opinions of a psychologist and father

Charles Fernyhough (2008), in his book The Baby in the Mirror: a Child’s World from Birth to Three, claims that infants from a young age are equipped to deal with the complexities of social life. He offers the following observation and commentary on his daughter, Athena’s behaviour just a few weeks after she was born:

[…] some have argued that babies are born knowing the world is inhabited by two fundamentally different kinds of object: those that can get around under their own steam (like people) and those that can’t. There can be no doubt that babies are wired up to treat people differently. If they can show that special sensitivity, then they have a chance to learn about the other qualities that set people apart. As these social interactions become more sophisticated, the information they can convey will become richer and richer.

[…] If Athena makes a random gurgling sound which I think sounds like a classic baby coo, then I respond to it with all the emotional dials turned up full. I fill it with meaning, and turn that meaning back to her. The emotional stakes are raised: suddenly this matters to both of us. As soon as she can begin to connect my response with the action of hers that triggered it in the first place, she can start to close the circle of her own emotions: how feelings lead to responses, and back to feelings, world without end. Infants’ social behaviour comes to have meaning because we take it as having meaning. We create our babies’ smiles before they do.

[…] She gives as well as receives. She has expectations of how I will behave, and she reacts if I don’t fulfil them. She can recognise a few different emotional expressions, and reproduce the most basic ones for herself. If I were suddenly to change my expression from happy to angry for example, she would show surprise. If I suddenly made my face freeze up altogether, she would stop smiling, look away and then try to re-engage my attention. She will fight to keep the channels open.

(Fernyhough, 2008, pp. 44–6)

In these brief extracts, Fernyhough, a developmental psychologist by training, reflects some key assumptions about babies’ sociability. Firstly, it seems that babies are born with the ability to differentiate between animate and inanimate objects. This is shown by the claim that they behave as if they have different expectations of people and objects. They do not expect objects to reciprocate in the same way that people do. Secondly, parents treat babies as if they are social beings from the start by reciprocating their babies’ expressions and vocalisations (but it is worth pointing out that cultures differ in this respect). As Fernyhough points out, parents construct social meanings for their babies’ actions that convey important information to the baby. Thirdly, although parents imbue their babies’ behaviours with social and emotional meaning that, from a strictly objective point of view might seem fanciful, it is quite clear that it is not a one way street. Babies work hard to maintain joint attention and solicit positive emotional and social reactions from their parents. These suggestions are part of an important line of research that is built on the assumption that very young infants do not treat everything in their world in the same way and that they are attuned to social experiences.

1 Activity

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Watch the video clips in ‘Mother-infant social interaction’, which show a 3 month-old and a 9 month-old infant interacting with their mother. As you watch, note down any behaviours that suggest that parents treat babies as if they are social beings and that suggest that the babies are attempting to communicate with their mothers. Note that this might be communication in its widest sense (e.g. vocalising, waving an arm).

Download this video clip.Video player: Mother-infant social interaction 1
Skip transcript: Mother-infant social interaction 1

Transcript: Mother-infant social interaction 1

Are you Mummy's gorgeous girl? Eh? You don't know what's going on. Right? Who's mummy's gorgeous girl? [MAKING SPITTING NOISES] Baby girl. Mm. [MAKING SPITTING NOISES] [LAUGHTER] [MAKING SPITTING NOISES] [LAUGHTER] [MAKING SPITTING NOISES]
You can do it. You do it. [MAKING SPITTING NOISES] You do it with mummy. [MAKING SPITTING NOISES] You do it with mummy. You do it. Mm. [MAKING SPITTING NOISES] Yes. Yes. [MAKING SPITTING NOISES] Who's mummy's favourite girl?
Who's mummy's favourite girl? Who's mummy's favourite girl? Yeah? Who's mummy's favourite girl? Is it you? Is it you? Is it you? [MAKING SPITTING NOISES]
Really? Is that what they said? Is that what they said? Eh? Is that what they said?
Is that what they said? Is that what they said now, sweetheart? Really? Eh? Eh? Is that what they said?
Is it? Is that what they said? Mm. Mm. You do it. [MAKING SPITTING NOISES] Oh. Are you tired? Are you tired?
End transcript: Mother-infant social interaction 1
Mother-infant social interaction 1
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Download this video clip.Video player: Mother-infant social interaction 2
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Transcript: Mother-infant social interaction 2

Where'd it go? Where's it gone? There it is. Can you put it on? Can you put it? Lily Mae? Buh-buh-buh. Where's it going? Where's it gone? What about this one? What about this one? Oh, no. Where have they gone? Where it's gone? Where's it gone?
Boo! Peek-a-boo! Where have they gone? Where's it gone? There it is. Do you want it? Do you want it? Lily Mae? [SQUEAKY TOY SOUNDS] Boo! Boo! Rah! Rah! It's a chicken. Can you do shaky? Shaky shaky shaky. Shaky shaky shaky.
Shaky shaky. Shaky shaky. Clever girl. Uh-oh. Where's it gone? Where's it gone? Ready? Here he comes. [SQUEAKY TOY SOUNDS] Peek-a-boo. Peek-a-boo. Peek-a-boo. Oh, no. Where's he gone? Where's he gone? Want it? Ta?
Uh-oh. Uh-oh. Where's he gone? Where's he gone? I'm coming to get you. [SQUEAKY TOY SOUNDS] Boo! Rah! Rah! You want it? Uh-oh. Where's he gone? Where has he gone? Tickle tickle tickle. Pretty kisses. Mwah. Mwah.
Gonna drop it on the floor?
Yay, yay.
End transcript: Mother-infant social interaction 2
Mother-infant social interaction 2
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Now go back to the video clips and think about whether the babies are working hard to maintain joint attention and solicit positive emotional and social reactions from their mothers.

What do your findings show? Is there a difference between the older and the younger baby?

Finally, consider the following questions:

  • What were the difficulties in carrying out this task?
  • Has this altered your opinions about how young babies communicate?


Download this video clip.Video player: Early interaction
Skip transcript: Early interaction

Transcript: Early interaction

So we've got a three-month-old going on here. And three-month-olds are really interested in interaction with people. So this mother's trying to introduce a toy, and now she's got another toy. But where that baby is interested in looking is at this mother. OK, she's looking down just a little bit at the moment. But she's come right back here.
And she's actually quite still. When she gets older, she'll be reaching for toys and she'll be really animated for toys. In fact, the mother's clearly decided that she's really not interested in that toy and she's introduced this game of sticking out tongue.
And the baby's smiling. And you can just see the baby's mouth going [MOUTH SOUND]. So the baby is starting to play the same game, or responding, or imitating. Those are interesting different ways to describe what's going on. But the key thing is that they're doing the same thing. And the mother, in fact, is concentrating on it so much, she's doing the baby's cheek, encouraging it. And that baby's continued to look at that mum.
This is what I call emotional intimacy. This is what's important. And this baby's fantastic at that. And this mother is fantastic at that. And this is where the world is for these two people right now, is between the two of them. That's intersubjectivity.
Alright, and now the mother's not so sure, she hasn't had a response, so she's going to try this toy. But can you see the baby's looking over that toy, trying to find the mother. That toy is not exciting. That mother is exciting at this very young age. This baby is only three-months-old.
And now the mother's introducing a tiny bit of the game. She's doing the baby's nose. And can you see that hand? That hand is now coming in. That's part of the baby's experience of all of that. The baby's excited about this, or curious about it or something. And look, now there's the toes going.
OK, now the baby's had enough. The baby's turning away slightly. I'm too excited. I want to calm down a little bit. Now the mother's sort of staying engaged and has come around to see the baby's face. It might have been that at another time, if this mother wasn't in front of the camera, she would have just let the baby have a time out. Do you see how the baby's reach for that hand, it's almost like she's reaching for extra support, extra connection? But it may be that this is very exciting. And she may be overly excited.
Fascinating thing about babies is they can take care of themselves-- emotional regulation, when I get overly excited. And some mothers will give babies a break and some mothers will give babies less of a break. And some cultures will give babies a break and other cultures will give them less of a break. That's part of how our brains start to get constructed about how excited can we be, how much excitement can we manage?
But now the baby's starting to come back in. Now the baby's concentrating here just for a minute. And the mother looked to see me coming in. Now, that baby isn't looking at me, but has orientated. Does that mean something?
Those are the questions we're asking in developmental psychology. What does all this behaviour mean? The babies can't tell us. That's why it's such an intriguing puzzle. Because we're trying to figure out what is going on in that baby's experience. How is that baby reading the world, how is it making sense of the world? And all we have to go on is their behaviour-- but, importantly, their behaviour in response to other things. So we can look at how that baby responds to what the mother does.
And that's what really happened in the '70s. We became really interested, not just in what the babies were doing, but in what they were doing in response to the wider world. And that's a key insight into babies, their responsiveness to other people, to other things. But it's in very subtle, subtle ways that we often don't notice.
And we just do it spontaneously. This mother isn't thinking about of these things I'm saying. See, there we go again. She's doing this quite spontaneously. We are social creatures, and we read other people. This mother is reading this baby.
The key question for developmental psychology is how does that baby learn to do that? Was that something the baby was born with, a sensitivity to other people, that their brain was born with? Or is that something that they learn? And those are the arguments we have had, for certainly 100 years in psychology and for hundreds and hundreds of years in philosophy.
End transcript: Early interaction
Early interaction
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Download this video clip.Video player: Infant interaction
Skip transcript: Infant interaction

Transcript: Infant interaction

So we've got the mother now introducing a game. She hands the toy to the baby, and the baby changes the game. Throws it down. And we've got this eye gaze going on. And she picks it up, and mum's going to continue the game.
Baby checks out just for a minute. And you can see the excitement in the baby. The baby's concentration, it's in the whole body. That's what that tongue is about. It's a part of the concentration. So mum's waiting until the baby seems ready to play.
And the baby's going to continue this game. Looks down, mum looks down with, now we share that moment just for a second. The emotional consequences of it. Now we're going to play. So now we're really going to continue that game.
And there's the baby looks up. So the baby's anticipating where it's going. Ah. So now we've switched to a social game. The baby's looking. Can you see the baby's enjoying that? But she's the one playing this game. Where's that toy going?
And the mum is inferring the baby's experience. Where? Where is it? Now, and mum is waiting until the baby's ready to go. She hasn't handed the toy in there. But the baby doesn't seem interested, so the mother's not introducing a new game.
And it's got lots of anticipation and surprise in it because the baby doesn't know when that's going to happen. And here we go. But the baby doesn't really interested in that game either. And here's mum quite spontaneously imitating the baby's action.
And now joining in or imitating the baby's mouth openings to get that toy in. So there's lots of spontaneous imitation or joining, or copying going on in this whole interaction, which shows how key imitation or joining is to our whole human interactions.
And she really likes this game of throwing things down. And the mother's still doing the emotional experience, or the questioning. Where has this gone? Over it we go. And now we're looking for the next one.
And when the mum is engaging, she's kind of getting in the baby's line of sight. Mom's probably getting bored with this game a little bit at the moment, so she's trying to introduce a new one. But this baby doesn't want to play that game. See? Over the edge.
This is a very popular game at nine months old. Drop things over the edge. And it's because they're starting to play with gravity. They're starting to see what can you do with these toys. Oh, and she's getting fractious.
But they also start to teeth because sometimes not only do they drop it over the edge, they then actually look to mum's face rather than to the toy, as if to say what are you going to make of this?
I'm really interested in your reaction to me dropping it over the side, as opposed to the toy itself. So that really becomes about the interaction of a person and the object. They're really at a new stage then.
End transcript: Infant interaction
Infant interaction
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