Do babies know if you are a helpful person? Here’s what we found.

[By: Sayaka Kidby]

You may have heard the phrase that babies are little scientists or active learners. They seem to be dependent upon other people in so many ways; they need to be fed, they need to be moved (before they start crawling) and they need to be soothed when they get upset. But at the same time, they have this remarkable ability to learn an incredible amount by looking around the world and hearing other people.

What is impressive is that they do not seem to simply take in everything they see or hear [1]. Previous research has shown that babies and toddlers can choose whom to learn from. For example, copying other people’s behaviour (imitation) is an important way of learning for little ones. They only imitate actions of those who previously performed it competently and confidently, but not actions of those who seemed uncertain about what they were doing [1,2].

Much less is known about whether this selective learning occurs in much younger babies, whose motor skills are still limited.With these small children, we can make use of technology to measure how their brain activity changes in response to the things that we show them. This can tell us a lot about how they process the world around them.

So, to test whether babies can choose who is the best person to learn from, we showed 9-month-old babies a series of photos of two actors on a screen. Person A always looked at a toy which appeared in one of the four corners of the screen, whilst Person B looked at the toy 25% of the time and looked towards one of the remaining empty corners 75% of the time. This means that Person A, who always looked at the toy, was a “helpful” informant because she always gave the baby a cue about where the toy was. Person B was not so helpful in this sense – she sometimes indicated the location of the toy, but most of the time she didn’t.

We monitored babies’ brain activity using an electroencephalogram (EEG) whilst they were watching the photos. We predicted that if babies can track helpful and unhelpful people, they  should process the information given by a helpful and unhelpful person differently, and so the resulting patterns of brain activities should look different. That is exactly what we found.

The figure to the side (Figure 1) is an illustration of infant brain activity whilst viewing our photos. You can read about EEG in one of my previous blog posts along with why it is important for our research in another blog post of mine. Briefly, this technology detects tiny changes in electrical activity happening inside the brain according to the job that the brain is doing at any given time. In this figure, the blue line shows babies’ brain activity when they were watching a helpful person, and the red shows an unhelpful one. If we see two lines showing a different pattern, that indicates that their brain reacted differently to what they were shown.

Let’s look at the yellow circle. You can see the blue line going below the red line. The downward curve happening between 400ms and 600ms from when the image first appeared (time = 0)  is known to reflect infants’ attention. More negative means more attention. This data suggests that babies paid more attention to a helpful person who always looked at the toy (blue line) compared to an unhelpful person who only sometimes looked at the toy but looked away most of the time (red line).

Let’s look at another figure (Figure2). If you look at the pink circle, now the red line is above the blue line. The larger activity from 600ms onwards is thought to reflect more demand on the brain to input information. In the context of this study, this is suggesting that babies needed to put more effort to process information given by an unhelpful person compared to information given by a helpful one.

What does this study tell us about infants’ cognition and learning? The data shows that babies at 9 months of age can process information given by a helpful and unhelpful person differently. They pay more attention to a helpful person, and process information by them more efficiently when compared to an unhelpful one.

Now that we know babies as young as 9 months of age can process information in a different way according to the informant’s helpfulness, we can ask many things about young babies’ selective learning. For instance, do they remember the information better if it is given by a helpful person rather than an unhelpful one? Would they interact with people differently according to their helpfulness?

For now, a take home message for you is – your little one might be already capable of listening to other people with a grain of salt!


The study was conducted from July to September 2019 at Lancaster Babylab. If you visited Lancaster Babylab with your little one, and watch a video showing photos of two experimenters looking at or away from a toy – this is what your baby has told us! Thank you very much for your contribution. Do let us know what you think about this study or your visit to us, by email (, Facebook or Twitter (@LancsBabylab). We always welcome any feedback from families.

The result of this study was presented as a poster at an international conference (International Congress of Infancy Studies). Due to the current situation the conference was carried out virtually, but we have received much interest and feedback on this study. Many thanks to researchers who visited our poster and left comments, or joined an online chat with me as a presenter. We greatly appreciated your input.

The original poster as well as the recording of myself briefly explaining about this study can be downloaded here. If you have any questions or comment, please do feel free to get in touch with me (Saya Kidby) on s.kidby [] (please insert @ in the bracket).


This blog post was written by Saya Kidby, a PhD student in Lancaster University in England. She is interested in how every day social interaction can help babies learn better, and trying to see how their brain interacts with the surrounding environment including other people (or you!). For updates on her research, please follow her on Twitter (@sayakidby). Also keep an eye on updates on Lancaster Babylab (website/Facebook/Twitter).



[1] Harris, P. L., Koenig, M. A., Corriveau, K. H., & Jaswal, V. K. (2018). Cognitive Foundations of Learning from Testimony. Annual Review of Psychology.

[2] Zmyj, N., Buttelmann, D., Carpenter, M., & Daum, M. M. (2010). The reliability of a model influences 14-month-olds’ imitation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 106(4), 208–220.