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New study provides unique insights regarding how children learn to attend to social cues

Results could shed light on reasons for social communication difficulties in conditions such as autism

From a young age, infants and young children pay a lot of attention to social and engaging signals, such as faces and cheerful voices. Scientists from the Babylab at Birkbeck, University of London have now uncovered more about the underlying mechanism for why this is the case. The results of their study are published in the journal Proceedings B.

In this study, a novel eye-tracking task, which gives immediate response when an observer looks at a certain person or an object on a video monitor, was created. This new technology allows the scientists to measure children's response to social (and non-social) interaction in a way far more precise and controlled than showing real persons or objects to children.

Four groups of 3-year-old children and four groups of adults were shown different types of stimuli: social and engaging (face smiling, saying ‘hello, looking to where the reward/penalty appears’); social and non-engaging (face frowning, saying ‘hum’, looking away from where the reward/penalty appears); non-social and engaging (sphere with a ‘ding’ sound and an arrow pointing to where the reward/penalty appears); and non-social and non-engaging (sphere with a ‘dong’ sound and an arrow that points away from where the reward/penalty appears).

Any of these combinations could lead to either the reward (a short animation) or the penalty (a blank screen). A series of screens with two stimuli were shown, and the study participants’ gaze was tracked using a piece of equipment that can identify where on the screen they are looking. The participant’s gaze resting on one of the stimuli would activate it, leading to either the reward or the penalty.

The researchers found that both children and adults changed the pattern of visual attention, and learned to selectively look at the 'rewarding' person or object. Critically, the speed of such learning depended on who or what happened to be 'rewarding' - both children and adults were faster to learn to attend when the socially engaging response, smiling back to the observer and looking at where the reward would appear, led to the rewarding outcome. Note that the participants did not simply 'liked' the socially engaging person, in which case they would have shown more attention to social and engaging cues regardless of what happens afterwards.

Instead, the participants seemed to find it easier to learn that attending to socially engaging person lead to positive outcomes, rather than to socially non-engaging person or an object. This study highlights that socially engaging communication signals can facilitate reward learning, and influence visual attention in young children (and in adults as well).

Angelina Vernetti, lead author on the paper, said: “Knowing where to look to obtain the most relevant and useful information about where or how to obtain the best outcomes during social interactions is advantageous. Our study shows that engaging social cues might alert people to the likelihood of rewarding events in the immediate future and allow them to control their attention and decision-making more accurately.

“Furthermore, it could help us to understand more about conditions where social attention develops atypically, such as autism. The underlying cause for social attention difficulties in such conditions could be related to the brain’s ability to process rewards. This is something that needs to be investigated further.”

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