"Just ignore the baby and it will stop crying!" – Many young parents are familiar with such well-meaning advice. However, according to developmental psychologist Louisa Kulke, this is wrong. Babies are aware of the social situation they are in and whether others might react to them.
"Adults behave very differently depending on the social context," explains Professor Kulke. "When we are in a public situation, for example on the tram, we avoid staring at other people. Without explicitly thinking about it, we adults adhere to social rules when we are among people. It's different when we're sitting alone on the sofa at home watching TV. We can then look freely at anything that interests us and, for example, stare at other people without shame," says Kulke. Until now, it was assumed that babies do not abide by such social rules and pay less attention to others.
Louisa Kulke and her team have now been able to disprove this assumption: "In our study, babies as young as three months old were able to recognize the social context in which they found themselves," states the developmental psychologist.
Babies Already Perceive Their Social Environment Well
Babies also do not look directly at strangers in social situations, while they look at them with interest when watching a video. "The exciting thing is that we were able to show that this behavior is not due to a lack of interest, but because people suppress their gaze from an early age based on the social context." People usually look at the objects that particularly interest them, yet this is not always the case. You can also focus your attention on something without looking at it, out of the corner of your eye, so to speak.
Professor Kulke has developed a special method to measure this type of attention: "We combine the measurement of eye movements with the measurement of brain waves via electroencephalography (EEG). This allows us to recognize whether the brain is attentive even when the eyes are looking away". And that was exactly the case. Both babies and adults do not look at strangers, even though their brain is alert. The researchers also found this particularly exciting when comparing direct interactions and videos. The investigations showed that even babies react differently to these two situations and are able to distinguish between them. According to the researchers, this is particularly relevant in a world of increasing digitalization and video calling. After all, if babies know the difference between videos and real interactions, interactions with them cannot simply be replaced by videos.
Reference: Kulke, L., Ertugrul, S., Reyentanz, E., & Thomas, V. (2023). Uncomfortable staring? Gaze to other people in social situations is inhibited in both infants and adults. Developmental Science, e13468.
Prof. Dr. Louisa Kulke
Faculty of Human and Health Sciences
Department of Developmental and Educational Psychology
University of Bremen
Email: louisa.kulkeprotect me ?!uni-bremenprotect me ?!.de
Phone: +49 421 218-68764