Good nutrition is important for health and longevity, yet many Americans do not consume nutritionally sound diets. Evidence suggests that infants'and children's earliest patterns of eating have lasting consequences for health across the lifespan. Despite the complexity and significance of food selection, developmental psychologists have devoted surprisingly little attention to studying how infants and children perceive, learn, and reason about foods. The current proposal employs methods from cognitive development to test social influences on infants'and children's food choices and consumption. The current studies test two age groups: (1) infants, who have limited knowledge in the food domain, but are typically open to a variety of foods and flavors;and (2) young children (3-6 years), who are more knowledgeable than infants and toddlers about foods, yet are notoriously picky eaters who are intolerant of new foods and flavors. Five studies with 12-month-old infants investigate and compare infants'social learning and reasoning about foods vs. (non-food) objects. These studies test how infants'earliest food and object choices are influenced by an informant's social group membership (Study 1), an informant's emotional display (Studies 2- 3), and an informant's method of teaching (Study 4). A final study with infants tests whether infants see an endorser's food and object preferences as unique to that individual, or as common to many individuals (Study 5).
This research aims to contribute both to our understanding of the factors that guide early eating, and also to theoretical knowledge concerning whether infants'early social learning is domain-general, or varies by domain (i.e., foods vs. objects). Four studies with 3-6-year-old children systematically test the conditions under which children's food selection may be susceptible to social messages and contexts. This research will investigate how the social group identities of informants (i.e., their accent, gender, and race) influence children's selection of foods (Studies 6-7), and also how the how the type of message provided by an informant (i.e., positive vs. negative;social vs. biological) influences children's food selection (Studies 8-9).
This research aims to explore the mechanisms underlying children's food selection, with the eventual goal of effecting positive change in children's willingness to select healthy foods that are familiar and disliked, and limiting their selection of unhealthy foods that are familiar and liked.)
The studies proposed here employ tools from cognitive development to investigate social influences on infants'and children's food choices and consumption. It is important to understand which factors guide children's food reasoning and behavior since early eating paves the way for later eating practices and health. The long-term goal of this research is to design research-supported interventions for promoting healthy eating throughout the lifespan.