A fascinating new study by researchers at Montreal's Concordia University has shown that babies as young as 18 months old are able to pick up on unjustified emotional responses.
The results of the study, published in Infancy, the journal of the International Society on Infant Studies, reveal just how emotionally clued-in toddlers are.
Below, I've adapted the experiment used in the study so that you can perform it on your own baby.
Age range: 15 to 20 months
Research area: Emotional development
You'll need to enlist the help of your spouse or another adult whom the baby knows well and trusts.
Seat your baby in a high chair and pantomime the following two scenes in front of her:
• Using a hammer or hammer-like object, pretend to tinker around for a few seconds, then act as if you have accidentally struck your finger. Grimace and frown, holding your expression until your baby looks away.
• Express boredom until the other adult hands you a toy ball. Then, look at the ball with excitement and smile broadly. Again, hold your expression until your baby looks away.
A few days later, repeat the two scenes, but this time, after striking your finger, smile broadly, and after being given the ball, grimace and frown.
At 15 months, your baby is not likely to respond differently to the justified and unjustified emotional responses. She is likely to respond to the sad faces, whether justified or unjustified, by adopting a sad or concerned facial expression herself.
But from about 18 months old, she will spend more time looking at you, and more time glancing over at the other adult, when your response is unjustified. Moreover, she is likely to respond to only the justified sad faces with an empathetic facial expression.
In the original study, 15-month-old and 18-month-old babies were split into two groups. One group saw pantomimed scenes in which the positive or negative emotional response was justified; the other saw scenes in which the response was unjustified.
The researchers observed the babies' looking times and also tracked their facial expressions and the frequency of their "checking" behavior (that is, glancing toward a trusted adult for guidance or validation).
They found that the 15-month-olds' responses to the scenes did not significantly differ between the justified and unjustified groups.
But among the 18-month-olds, the babies in the unjustified group spent more time looking at the adult's discordant expression and exhibited more checking behavior. Additionally, the babies' facial expressions only displayed empathy for the adult when a negative emotional response fit the scenario.
Parents, take note: Your toddler can see through your "stiff upper lip" routine.
"Our research shows that babies cannot be fooled into believing something that causes pain results in pleasure," says study co-author Diane Poulin-Dubois, a psychology professor at Concordia. "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."
In this video, study co-author Sabrina Chiarella demonstrates the experiments and discusses the significance of her findings.
For more experiments like this one, as well as the latest news about infant research and other resources for new parents, visit ExperimentingWithBabies.com
Chiarella, Sabrina S. and Poulin-Dubois, Diane. "Cry Babies and Pollyannas: Infants Can Detect Unjustified Emotional Reactions," Infancy 18:S1(E81-E96), August 2013.