Research Update: Baby Sense

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Have you ever wondered what a baby is thinking?  As their five senses develop, what are these little humans focusing on?  For many years researchers have studied this youthful population and now a new study is giving more insight into babies.

At the Infant Cognition Lab some researchers are interested in the way infants start to think about the events, objects, and people observed in their environment. One study conducted by graduate student Charisse Pickron, Ph.D. and Professor Erik Cheries, Ph.D. at the Healthy Development Initiative asks questions about how infants make judgements about people’s faces.  

Other researchers have found that children can display social prejudices against others based on gender and race features.  The goal of Pickron and Cheries’ study was to begin to examine the origins of these social prejudices. To do this researchers studied 12- and 24-month-old infants who participated in two activities used to assess their ability to represent individual faces based on gender and race.

First, infants participated in a puppet show during which they saw faces of different features appear and disappear behind a screen. The second activity was an interactive reaching task, where infants had to keep track of the number of faces hidden within a box. The findings suggest that 12- and 24-month-old infants have a conceptual representation that distinguishes human faces from other types of non-human objects. Interestingly, Pickron and Cheries also found that 24-month-old infants represented male faces as distinct from female faces. This means that by their second birthday, infants might be thinking about someone who looks like a male as being distinct or a different kind of person than someone who looks like a female. In contrast, infants who participated in this study did not seem to think about faces that had features that differed based on race as being distinct. In other words, infants did not seem to use markers of race to group together human faces.  

“We are continuing to work on this study by further examining the way infants detect differences in face gender by assessing whether infants have the same gender-based representations for faces of different race groups,” said Pickron.  The graduate student conducted the research as part of her dissertation, which she successfully defended last month.

Researchers believe that the study is an important first step in better understanding where social prejudices come from.  They found that infants think about gender as a meaningful marker, this might suggest that as early as 2 years of age infants may begin to develop a bias based on someone’s gender facial features.

The Infant Cognition Lab is still looking for participants as they continue the next phase of the study.  Participants are seen at the UMass Center in downtown Springfield. If you are interested in participating in this study or want information about other studies currently being conducted, please call 413-345-2939 or send an email to infantcoglab@gmail.com to find out more information.