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Toddlers engage in “emotional eavesdropping”

March 26, 2007
Courtesy University of Washington
and World Science staff

Eighteen-month-old chil­dren use “emo­tional eaves­drop­ping”—listen­ing to and watch­ing emo­tion­al re­ac­tions di­rect­ed among adults—to guide their own be­hav­ior, psy­chol­o­gists say.

The find­ings in­di­cate in­fants un­der­stand oth­er peo­ple’s emo­tion­al states at a very young age, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton in Se­at­tle, Wash.

Courtesy Columbus Public Health


The psy­chol­o­gists, Bet­ty Repa­choli and An­drew Melt­zoff, de­scribed the find­ings in the March-April is­sue of the jour­nal Child De­vel­op­ment, pub­lished March 26. 

The eaves­drop­ping “may be a pre­cur­sor to ‘read­ing’ oth­er peo­ple’s minds by un­der­standing their emo­tion­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal states,” said Repa­choli.

“Un­der­stand­ing oth­er peo­ple’s emo­tions is a life­long skill and is cru­cial for school read­i­ness. The fas­ci­nat­ing re­sult of this study is how sen­si­tive tod­dlers are to the emo­tion­al dy­nam­ics of the in­ter­ac­tions around them. They don’t need to try out a be­hav­ior of their own and get re­warded or pun­ished. They can watch what an old­er broth­er or sis­ter does and learn,” said Melt­zoff. “Chil­dren have their emo­tion­al an­ten­na up all the time.” 

He and Repa­choli set up ex­per­i­ments in which tod­dlers watched an adult play with a toy, then ob­served as a sec­ond adult ex­pressed an­ger or a neu­tral re­ac­tion in re­sponse to the first adult play­ing. The in­fants then were al­lowed to play with the toy. 

Repa­choli said all the in­fants showed in­ter­est in what the first adult was do­ing, and tried to play with the toy. But that changed when the sec­ond adult ex­pressed an­ger and re­mained in the room look­ing to­ward the child. 

When the sec­ond adult re­acted neu­trally or ex­pressed an­ger and then ei­ther left the room or turned her back, the young­sters grabbed the toy with­in a sec­ond, the re­search­ers said. The chil­dren al­so im­i­tat­ed the first adult’s ac­tion with the toy 83 per­cent of the time. 

But when the an­gry adult re­mained pre­s­ent, even though his or her face re­laxed to a neu­tral ex­pres­sion, the in­fants hes­i­tat­ed, the sci­en­tists said. Then the tod­dlers took an av­er­age of five sec­onds to take the toy, and were on­ly suc­cess­ful in im­i­tat­ing the first adult’s ac­tion half the time.

It’s the first dem­on­stra­tion that in­fants can mod­i­fy their be­hav­ior in re­sponse to an emo­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion that does not in­volve them, the psy­chol­o­gists said. “There are lots of stud­ies of how the emo­tions par­ents di­rect­ly com­mu­ni­cate to their in­fants have an im­pact on their be­hav­ior. No one be­fore con­sid­ered if in­fants can take in emo­tion­al in­for­ma­tion when di­rect­ed to­ward some­one else and ap­ply it to them­selves,” said Repa­choli.

The re­search­ers found no gen­der dif­fer­ences in how the in­fants re­acted—“a real sur­prise,” she said. “Par­ents usu­al­ly so­cial­ize boys and girls dif­fer­ent­ly and girls are usu­al­ly more com­pli­ant. It may be that dif­fer­ences in this ar­ea will emerge lat­er.”


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Eighteen-month-old children use “emotional eavesdropping”—listening and watching emotional reactions directed among adults—to guide their own behavior, psychologists say. The findings indicate infants understand other people’s emotional states at a very young age, according to the researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash., who The psychologists, Betty Repacholi and Andrew Meltzoff, described the findings in the March-April issue of the journal Child Development, published March 26. The eavesdropping “may be a precursor to ‘reading’ other people’s minds by understanding their emotional and psychological states,” said Repacholi. “Understanding other people’s emotions is a lifelong skill and is crucial for school readiness. The fascinating result of this study is how sensitive toddlers are to the emotional dynamics of the interactions around them. They don’t need to try out a behavior of their own and get rewarded or punished. They can watch what an older brother or sister does and learn,” said Meltzoff. “Children have their emotional antenna up all the time.” He and Repacholi set up experiments in which toddlers watched an adult play with a toy, then watched while a second adult expressed anger or a neutral reaction in response to the first adult playing. The infants then were allowed to play with the toy. Repacholi said all the infants showed interest in what the first adult was doing, and tried to play with the toy. But that changed when the second adult expressed anger and remained in the room looking toward the child. When the second adult reacted neutrally or expressed anger and then either left the room or turned her back, the youngsters grabbed the toy within a second, the researchers said. The children also imitated the first adult’s action with the toy 83 percent of the time. But when the angry adult remained present, even though his or her face relaxed to a neutral expression, the infants hesitated, the scientists said. Then the toddlers took an average of five seconds to take the toy, and were only successful in imitating the first adult’s action half the time. It’s the first demonstration that infants can modify their behavior in response to an emotional com munication that does not involve them, the psychologists said. “There are lots of studies of how the emotions parents directly com municate to their infants have an impact on their behavior. No one before considered if infants can take in emotional information when directed toward someone else and apply it to themselves,” said Repacholi. The researchers found no gender differences in how the infants reacted—”a real surprise,” said Repacholi. “Parents usually socialize boys and girls differently and girls are usually more compliant. It may be that differences in this area will emerge later.”