Genes influence whether infants prefer to look at faces or non-social objects

December 3, 2023

Listen to this article

Genes influence whether infants prefer to look at faces or non-social objects

Whether infants at five months of age look mostly at faces or non-social objects, such as cars or mobile phones, is largely determined by genes. This has now been demonstrated by a team of Swedish researchers. The findings suggest that there is a biological basis for how infants create their unique visual experiences and which things they learn most about. The study has been published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

The way in which we explore our environment with our eyes affects what we notice, think about and learn. The new study analyzed preference for faces versus non-social objects in more than 500 infant twins.

What the researchers say: “Our results suggest that even before infants can influence and choose their environment by pointing, crawling or walking, they create their own unique perceptual experiences by systematically looking more at social or non-social objects, preferences that can be largely explained by genetic differences between children,” said the first author of the study.

The children’s gaze was measured using an infant friendly eye tracker. The results showed that individual infants’ preference for faces could be largely explained by their genetics. The family environment did not explain preferences for social versus non-social information this early in life.

The researchers found that more looking at faces versus non-social objects at five months of age was associated with having a larger vocabulary in the second year of life. This supports the view that there is a link between early looking preferences and later development.

Whether an infant looks at faces or not, is a strong signal to other people, and can influence parents’ behavior towards their child. However, it should be remembered that looking at a lot of non-social objects is not necessarily negative – it is also important for cognitive development, explains the lead author.

The study is part of the Babytwins Study Sweden (BATSS) research project where identical and fraternal twins have been tested using different child-friendly methods. The children were followed from five months to three years of age, but eye tracking was only conducted at 5 months.

The researchers found that the looking preferences of the genetically identical twins were more similar than those of the fraternal twins. For example: if one identical twin in the pair looked mostly at non-social objects, there was a large chance that the other twin had the same preference. In contrast to identical twins, fraternal twins on average share only 50% of their genes. Their looking preferences tended to be less similar within each pair of twins.

In addition to the link to later language development, the researchers examined whether visual preferences could predict whether the infants, later in childhood, exhibited behaviours characteristic of autism, which is defined by difficulties with social communication. They also tested whether there were gender differences in facial preference.

“Our results indicate that face preference in infants is not strongly associated with social communication ability later in childhood. We also found no difference between boys and girls in terms of preference for faces versus non-social objects,” the principal investigator.

“Moreover, our data showed that the genes which influence facial preference are not the same as those involved in eye contact – that is, whether infants looked primarily at the eyes or the mouth when looking at a face. It’s fascinating that two basic social behaviors like looking at faces and looking at eyes have different genetic and probably evolutionary bases,” he added.

So, what? This is a potentially revolutionary study, and it cries out for more research following the children into later childhood or teens. Does the preference for faces or objects influence the choice of sport, or career?

The genetic data generated by this research is extraordinary. It follows up on research that was undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s. In these studies, very young children were given the choice of looking at pictures of people or a blank TV screen. Children born in the ‘80s preferred people and those born in the ‘90s preferred the TV screen.

Again, I would’ve been really interested to see follow-up studies to see what happened to the different sets of children later in life and what, if any, changes in genetic expression had occurred between the two.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

Join the discussion

Join our tribe

Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.

Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Check your details and try again.