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Social Signals in Infants

By UM News

Social Signals in Infants

By UM News
UM psychologist will study the social behavior of infants with NSF grant support

It may seem as a rude gesture, but University of Miami researchers in the Department of Psychology’s Child Division regularly stick their tongues out at newborn babies—all in the name of science.

Dr. Elizabeth Simpson sticks her tongue out at a newborn baby all in the name of science.
Dr. Simpson studies infants' social behavior in her lab.

This approach to studying the development of social behavior in infants, known as neonatal imitation, is one taken by Assistant Professor Elizabeth Simpson in her Social Cognition Lab in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Specifically, her research focuses on the development of social cognition and how infants begin to understand their social world. She studies their early foundational social skills, including face perception and imitation, from birth to the first year of life.

Her study aims to enhance the understanding of healthy sociality in infants, while ultimately helping to identify infants at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders.

“We don’t have a lot of information about the early social behaviors of infants, yet, we know that there are dramatic changes that happen in that first year of life,” said Simpson. “Babies grow into these very social creatures in the first months of life, and we are interested in looking at individual differences, such as why some babies are social and outgoing while others are shy and withdrawn.”

Simpson will be able to continue her research in this field with the help from a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation, a prestigious award supporting junior faculty who excel in their role as academics in research and education. 

Dr. Elizabeth Simpson shares facial expressions with a newborn baby who mimics her actions.

The award provides Simpson with $675,000 for the next five years, funding for two graduate students, and the opportunity to develop a mentoring summer research program for undergraduate students who are underrepresented in the field of science, such as first-generation college students, women, and minorities.
Simpson’s study in human infants is based on a previous study she conducted on monkey infants, which resulted in the finding that if the monkey infant was better at imitating during that first week of life, it went on to become more social, engaged in more play behavior, and initiated more social interactions.

“In essence, we are trying to translate that animal research to humans and see if we can replicate it,” said Simpson. 

Research and knowledge about the nature of early imitation in infants will give Simpson, and other researchers, insight into the individual differences of children as they develop to understand and identify when a child begins to deviate from the path of healthy development. Simpson and her team will measure the visual attention and neonatal imitation capabilities, as well as saliva samples, of 100 babies in the South Florida community.

For more information on participating, families can contact the lab by phone 305-284-8431, email ( or can sign up online at


April 13, 2017