According to a new study, published in the January issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, babies apparently get the whole business of making friends way before they can even talk. In fact, some show signs of understanding friendship as early as 9 months.
"Nine-month-old infants are paying attention to other people's relationships," study co-author Amanda Woodward told LiveScience. "Infants are able to watch two strangers interact in [a] movie and then make inferences about whether those two people are likely to be friends." Woodward, who is a professor at the University of Chicago, was making reference to a particular movie, which babies in the study were made to watch in order to observe signs of recognition.
Research has shown that babies—despite all their glassy-eyed and seemingly unaware ways—actually have a pretty solid grasp on how the world works from an early stage. In fact, as LiveScience notes, they're apparently hardwired with things like a primitive number sense, a knowledge of basic physics and even the concept that living organisms should have guts.
But when it comes to a baby's understanding of friendship, little was known. Until recently.
Since most adults tend to pick friends based on shared interests, Woodward and her colleagues decided to see whether this technique was true of babies, too. So they studied 64 9-month-olds, observing them as the infants watched a movie featuring two actors. Each actor was eating a "mystery food" from two containers with different colors. Little ones watched as the actor either showed signs of liking the food, or hating it. In some cases, the actors liked similar foods, while in others, they liked opposite ones.
Following up that little experiment, the same babies watched a video of two people meeting. Again, the actors either behaved similarly or differently—happy to see each other, or totally uninterested.
You might say it's pretty hard to draw any conclusions from watching babies watching videos. But the research would prove you wrong. According to Woodward, babies may not say what they're thinking, but they show it by how long they choose to look at something. And the study showed that the babies definitely stared longer at videos of people with opposite views, but friendly exchanges. This, they found, suggested that the babies expected the two people who disagreed on their food preferences to be enemies. They also stared longer at unfriendly people who had the same food preferences.
The takeaway? Babies expect people with similar likes and dislikes to be friends. And as Woodward says, this probably isn't learned behavior. Instead, she says, "it's some expectation that they are in some way prepared to have."