Infants Learn How To Match Emotions To Experiences Early On
October 17, 2013

You Can’t Fake It With A Baby

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

When the emotion matches the movement, such as when you sing "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!," children have an easy time figuring it out. A new study from Concordia University reveals that as early as 18 months of age, however, children can tell if the emotions and the reactions don't align properly.

The study findings, published in Infancy: The Official Journal of the International Society on Infant Studies, demonstrate that infants can detect whether a person's emotions are justifiable in a particular context. The research team proved that babies understand how the meaning of an experience is directly linked to the expressions that follow.

For caregivers, the implications of this study are important. “Our research shows that babies cannot be fooled into believing something that causes pain results in pleasure. Adults often try to shield infants from distress by putting on a happy face following a negative experience. But babies know the truth: as early as 18 months, they can implicitly understand which emotions go with which events,” says psychology professor Diane Poulin-Dubois.

The team recruited 92 infants at the 15 and 18-month marks. In a laboratory setting, the children watched as an actor went through several scenarios. The emotional reactions in these scenarios went with or against pantomimed experiences. For example, in one scenario, the actor showed a mismatched emotion by being sad when presented with a desired toy. In another scenario, the actor expressed an emotion that went with the experience by reacting in pain when pretending to hurt her finger.

The 15 month old children did not show significant differences in reactions to these events, showing empathy through their facial expressions to all sad faces, indicating that the children at that age have yet to develop the ability to understand the link between an emotional experience and the resulting facial expressions.

The 18 month old children, on the other hand, clearly detected when facial expressions did not match the experience. These children spent more time looking at the researcher's face than the younger children. They also checked back more frequently with their caregiver to gauge the reaction of a trusted source. The 18 month old children also showed empathy toward the person only when her sad face was justified; that is, only when the researcher was sad or in pain when she was supposed to be.

PhD candidate Sabrina Chiarella explains that the indiscriminate show of concern to sad faces in the younger infants is an adaptive behavior. “The ability to detect sadness and then react immediately has an evolutionary implication. However, to function effectively in the social world, children need to develop the ability to understand others’ behaviors by inferring what is going on internally for those around them.”

The research team is continuing their investigations by examining whether infants who are exposed to an individual who is emotionally unreliable will affect in their willingness to help or learn from that individual.