Natural Rationality | decision-making in the economy of nature


The linguistic basis of social preferences

Surprising (at least to me) finding, published in PNAS today. Young infants display a strong preference for agents that speak their own language. More than smell, look, and sound, social attachment seems to be mediated by linguistic (and accent) similarity. We like those who speak like us. From this findings, researchers draw three conclusions:

First, language provides a cue to social preferences, even in infants who have not begun to produce or understand speech. Second, the tendency to favor otherwise unfamiliar members of one's own social group begins to emerge early in human life and well before children begin to learn about the nature and history of social-group conflicts. The passage from infants' social preferences to adults' social conflicts may be long and circuitous, but such a path may exist and may explain, in part, why conflicts among different language and social groups are pervasive and difficult to eradicate. Third, because human languages vary, and the native language must be learned, the tendency to make social distinctions is shaped by experience. Because language learning is especially adaptable early in development, social preferences also may be malleable at young ages. This early adaptability of preference formation for familiar characteristics of individuals may obtain for many potential indicators of social group membership.