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Children Use Language Membership When Reasoning About Food Contamination


Food choice is cultural (Fischler, 1988; Millstone & Lang, 2002; Rozin & Rozin, 1981). Indeed, even infants prefer foods liked by members of their group (Shutts et al., 2009) and expect culture to guide food choices (Liberman et al., 2016). People learn not only what to eat, but also what to avoid. Previous work suggests that children do not avoid contaminated foods until 8 years of age (Rozin et al., 1986). Combining these lines of research, we ask how children reason about foods that are contaminated by someone from within versus outside their culture. In Studies 1 & 2, we presented 3- to 11-year-olds with videos of a native speaker and a foreign speaker each liking a food, but varied whose food was contaminated: the foreign speaker’s food (Study 1), or the native speaker’s food (Study 2). In Study 3, children were randomly assigned to watch videos of one speaker (either native or foreign) eat one food (either clean or contaminated) to better understand the mechanisms driving children’s food choices. By 3-years-old, children rated contaminated food as germy and were better at avoiding it when the contamination came from a foreign speaker. However, when contaminated food came from a native speaker, children were not as adept in their understanding of contamination. Children reported that contaminated food from a native speaker was germy and likely to make them sick by 5- to 7-years-old, but did not accurately avoid it until around 7- to 9-years-old.

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