The Amazing Memory Of Toddlers

New research indicates that three-year-olds can recognize a person they’ve met only once before, at age one:

[Researcher Osman] Kingo and his team first renewed contact with parents and their children who’d taken part in an earlier study when the children were age one. That earlier research involved the infant children interacting with one of two researchers for 45 minutes – either a Scandinavian-Caucasian man or a Scandinavian-African man.

Now two years on, 50 of these parents and children – the latter now aged three – were invited back to the exact same lab (hopefully cueing their earlier memories). Here the children were shown two simultaneous 45-second videos side by side. One video was a recording of the researcher – either the Scandinavian-Caucasian or Scandinavian-African man – interacting with them two years earlier; the other video showed the other researcher (the one they hadn’t met) interacting with a different child in the exact same way. The children themselves were not visible in these videos.

The key test was whether the three-year-olds would show a preference for looking at one video rather than the other. Amazingly, the children spent significantly more time looking at the video that featured the researcher they’d never met. This is not due to the children having a bias for either the white or black man, because for some of these children the previously unseen researcher was Scandinavian-African and for others he was Scandinavian-Caucasian. All background features and behaviours in the videos were identical, so this result provides strong evidence that the children had some recognition of the researcher they’d met, and were drawn more strongly to look at the unfamiliar researcher.

Importantly, this same looking pattern was not observed among a control group of 36 three-year-olds who hadn’t taken part in the original research two years’ earlier. In fact, these children showed a bias toward looking at the black researcher. This is unsurprising because young children often show a bias towards looking at other-race faces. The fact that the three-year-olds in the experimental group didn’t display this pattern shows that the influence of their memory overrode the usual other-race bias.