Infants Time Their Smiles to Make Their Moms Smile

Infants Time Their Smiles to Make Their Moms Smile

By Paul Ruvolo, Daniel Messinger, Javier Movellan | PLOS ONE | DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0136492 | September 23, 2015


One of the earliest forms of interaction between mothers and infants is smiling games. While the temporal dynamics of these games have been extensively studied, they are still not well understood. Why do mothers and infants time their smiles the way they do? To answer this question we applied methods from control theory, an approach frequently used in robotics, to analyze and synthesize goal-oriented behavior. The results of our analysis show that by the time infants reach 4 months of age both mothers and infants time their smiles in a purposeful, goal-oriented manner. In our study, mothers consistently attempted to maximize the time spent in mutual smiling, while infants tried to maximize mother-only smile time. To validate this finding, we ported the smile timing strategy used by infants to a sophisticated child-like robot that automatically perceived and produced smiles while interacting with adults. As predicted, this strategy proved successful at maximizing adult-only smile time. The results indicate that by 4 months of age infants interact with their mothers in a goal-oriented manner, utilizing a sophisticated understanding of timing in social interactions. Our work suggests that control theory is a promising technique for both analyzing complex interactive behavior and providing new insights into the development of social communication.

Parents smiling at baby

Read at: PLOS (Public Library of Science) and The Wall Street Journal.

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