When an infant reaches for one stuffed animal in a space filled with others just like it, that apparently random choice by infants is quite bad news for the unpicked toys: the baby has probably just decided she doesn’t like what she did not choose.
Though researchers have known that adults build unconscious biases within a life of earning choices between things that are essentially the same, the new Johns Hopkins University discovering that even infants engage in this phenomenon demonstrates that this manner of justifying choice is intuitive and somehow fundamental to the human experience.
“The act of making a choice changes how we feel about our options,” said co-author Alex Silver, a former Johns Hopkins undergraduate who’s now a graduate student in cognitive psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. “Even infants who are really just at the start of making choices for themselves have this bias.”
People assume they choose things that they like. But research suggests that is sometimes backwards: We like things because we pick them. And, we dislike things that we do not choose.
“I chose this, so I must like it. I didn’t choose this other thing, so it must not be so good. Adults make these inferences unconsciously,” said co-author Lisa Feigenson, a Johns Hopkins cognitive scientist specializing in child development. “We justify our choice after the fact.”
This makes sense for adults at a consumer culture that must create arbitrary choices daily, between everything from toothpaste brands to makes of cars to fashions of jeans. So they turned to infants, who do not find many options so, as Feigenson sets it, are “a perfect window into the origin of this tendency.”
The team brought 10- to 20-month-old infants into the laboratory and gave them a selection of things to play : two equally bright and vibrant soft cubes.
They set each cube far apart, so the infants needed to crawl to one or the other – a random option.
After the infant chose one of those toys, the investigators took it away and came back with a new alternative. The infants could then choose from the toy they didn’t play with the first time, or a brand-new toy.
“The babies reliably chose to play with the new object rather than the one they had previously not chosen, as if they were saying, ‘Hmm, I didn’t choose that object last time, I guess I didn’t like it very much,’ ” Feigenson said. “That is the core phenomenon. Adults will like less the thing they didn’t choose, even if they had no real preference in the first place. And babies, just the same, dis-prefer the unchosen object.”
In follow-up experiments, once the researchers instead chose which toy the infant would play with, the occurrence disappeared completely. If you take the element of choice away, Feigenson stated, phenomenon goes away.
“They are really not choosing based on novelty or intrinsic preference,” Silver said. “I think it’s really surprising. We wouldn’t expect infants to be making such methodical choices.”
To keep on analyzing the evolution of choice in babies, the lab will look into “choice overload”, so the laboratory will try to ascertain if that’s also true for infants.