What evidence is required to determine whether infants infer the kinship of third parties? A commentary on Spokes and Spelke (2017)

Joseph Billingsley, Beverly Boos, Debra Lieberman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Research into the cognitive capacities of infants has revealed a rich assortment of competencies that help to structure inferences across multiple content domains. Despite these advances, researchers have paid relatively little attention to a domain crucial to social life: kinship. One recent exception is a set of studies by Spokes and Spelke (2017), who report evidence that 15 to 18-month-old infants expect social affiliation between two babies receiving care from the same adult. The experiments reported by Spokes and Spelke raise the key question of whether infants harbor intuitions regarding kinship—and provide tantalizing hints that they do. But determining whether the infant inferences found in these experiments in fact do implicate a kin-specific psychology is not straightforward, as kinship and social group membership overlap. Researchers need a set of criteria for ascertaining whether individuals (preverbal infants in particular but also children and adults alike) infer kinship—the likely genetic relatedness—between agents based on interactions with a common 3rd party and then use this information to guide expectations of behavior. Here, we consider the nature of evidence that would be needed to establish in principle that infants make inferences specific to kinship. In doing so, we link the developmental literature on infant social cognition to adult kin detection research, which has previously grappled with the question of what evidentiary standards reasonably establish the presence of kin-specific inferences. In light of prior empirical and theoretical work, we advance four criteria for establishing the presence of tacit knowledge of kinship, assess the extent to which the studies presented by S&S meet these criteria, and use the criteria to inform and spark directions for future research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103976
StatePublished - Oct 2019


  • Evolution
  • Infant
  • Kinship
  • Social cognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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