Researchers from the Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington have analysed the reactions of 250 babies to see how they respond when exposed to “angry personalities.”
The researchers found that by 12 months of age, babies become very responsive to other people’s emotions and they use that emotional information to regulate their own behaviour.
Reporting their findings in the March issue of Developmental Psychology, the study’s lead researcher Betty Repacholi said, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression and it seems to be that babies follow that old saying as well.”
“It’s as if babies knew that the best strategy was to give this anger prone person exactly what she wanted so that she would not get angry at them.”
In the experiment, babies sat on their parents’ laps across the table from a researcher called the “Experimenter.”
The baby saw the Experimenter demonstrating how to play with a series of toys. In each trial, a second researcher, the “Emoter,” reacted in either a neutral way (“That’s entertaining”) or negative way by saying “That’s aggravating!” in a stern voice when the Experimenter performed her action on the toy. The Emoter’s reaction was the same for each toy.
Then the baby had a chance to play with the same toy.
The researchers measured how readily the babies imitated the Experimenter’s actions. Babies who witnessed the angry outburst were less likely to play with the toy or to duplicate the adult’s actions than babies who saw a neutral reaction from the Emoter.
Next, the Experimenter showed the baby how to play with a new toy. This time, however, the previously angry Emoter now appeared to be neutral.
“We wanted to see if babies would treat the anger they had seen before as a one-off event or whether they see it as being part of the person’s character,” Repacholi said.
When given the chance to play with the new toy, the babies who knew the Emoter’s angry history avoided playing with the toy, compared with the babies who were in the neutral group.
“It’s as if the baby doesn’t trust that the Emoter is now calm,” Repacholi said. “Once babies have detected that someone’s prone to anger, it’s hard to dismiss. They’re taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach, where they’re not going to take a risk even though the situation has apparently changed.”
In a second experiment, Repacholi and her team found that babies are capable of coming up with appeasement gestures in situations involving anger-prone adults. The findings are published online and will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Infancy.
Using a similar experimental setup, another group of babies with an even number of boys and girls first observed either the “angry” or “neutral” Emoter’s reaction to toys used by the Experimenter.
Then, the twist: the Experimenter brought out new toys designed to be highly desirable to the infants, such as a toy with a small ball that lit up when rotated.
Sitting on their parents’ laps, the babies got to play with the appealing toy briefly before the Emoter — who had a neutral facial expression and wasn’t showing any anger at this point — asked for a turn.
What did the babies do? Those who had previously seen the Emoter be angry readily relinquished the toys. That is, 69 percent of babies in the “anger” group gave up the toys compared to 46 percent of babies in the “neutral” group.
“I was so surprised to see the infants give the toys away — it was like they were appeasing or compromising with the adult,” Repacholi said. “They didn’t want to risk making the previously angry adult mad again. They didn’t act this way with the other adult who had not shown anger.”
Together the studies illustrate how babies:
- make quick judgments about people’s emotional qualities
- can have negative emotions dominate their perceptions of a person’s character
- tend to assume a person with a history of anger will become angry again even if the situation has changed
“Our studies show that babies are very tuned into other people’s anger,” Repacholi said. “For parents, it’s important to be mindful of how powerful that emotion is for babies.”
“Our research shows that babies are carefully paying attention to the emotional reactions of adults,” said co-author Andrew Meltzoff.
“The babies are ‘emotion detectives.’ They watch and listen to our emotions, remember how we acted in the past, and use this to predict how we will act in the future. How long these first impressions last is an important question.”