Infants of just 14 months already have a nonsense-detector that alerts them to unreliable people, from whom they’ll no longer bother taking lessons.
Diane Poulin-Dubois demonstrated this in a study with 60 infants. In one “reliable” condition, the researcher smiled and exclaimed with delight on discovering a toy in a container, before then passing it to the infant to inspect. In the other “unreliable” condition, the researcher similarly expressed delight but there was in fact no toy. This was repeated several times.
Next, the same researcher produced a touch-on light, placed it on the desk and switched it on by leaning forwards and using her forehead. She repeated this three times then passed the light to the infant. The key finding is that infants in the “unreliable” condition were far less likely to bother imitating the researcher by switching on the light with their own forehead. Across two attempts, 34 per cent of infants in the unreliable condition used their forehead to turn the light on, compared with 61 per cent of infants in the reliable condition.
“Infants seem to perceive reliable adults as capable of rational action, whose novel, unfamiliar behaviour is worth imitating,” the researchers said. “In contrast, the same behaviour performed by a previously unreliable adult is interpreted as irrational or inefficient, thus not worthy of imitating.”
Other explanations for the finding were ruled out. For example, infants in both the reliable and unreliable conditions were equally attentive to the researcher’s demonstration with the light, so it’s not the case that they’d simply lost interest.
The new finding adds to a growing body of research showing children’s selectivity in who they choose to learn from. For example, children prefer to learn from adults as opposed to their peers, and they prefer to learn from people they are familiar with and who appear more certain, confident and knowledgeable. Prior research with infants found they were less likely to follow the gaze of an unreliable adult who’d earlier expressed delight at an empty container.
“These results add to a growing body of literature that suggests that infants are adept at generalising their knowledge about the reliability of other people across varying contexts,” the researchers said. “The unique contribution of the present study shows that, similar to older children, infants are able to keep track of an individual’s history of being accurate or inaccurate and use this information to guide their subsequent learning.”
D Poulin-Dubois, I Brooker, and A Polonia (2011). Infants prefer to imitate a reliable person. Infant Behaviour and Development DOI: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2011.01.006