They cry, they want lots of attention, and they want it NOW! From the moment a baby is born, it can seem to be all about them and what they’re feeling, even if they don’t have the words to describe their emotions. At a certain point, as their worlds expand, babies learn to react to the emotions of others and to understand and expect appropriate responses to events that have occurred. A new study from a researcher at Concordia University has found that by 18 months old, babies are ready to understand and react to varied adult responses to negative or sad events. They also appeared to accept that certain people don’t express sadness in an outward manner and, importantly, that this difference in emotional reactions does not result in a loss of the baby’s trust.
Photo via Youtube video of Chiarella’s work
To study how 18 month-olds react to a stoic person, Sabrina Chiarella set up scenarios in which babies watched as toys were taken away from her. For one set of babies, Chiarella feigned sadness at this event. For the other set, she acted stoic and unemotional. While the babies who witnessed Chiarella acting sad appeared more concerned at her emotions, all of the babies seemed to trust her and actively helped her when she played with them later. According to Chiarella, this behavior shows that 18 month-olds understand human emotion enough to know that a sad event doesn’t always result in someone showing their sadness. Chiarella’s previous research showed that by eighteen months, babies can understand and react when a person makes an odd or unexpected reaction to an event (for example, smiling after hitting one’s fingers with a play hammer). 15 month-olds, by contrast, did not seem to take notice of or question this unexpected outcome. Like many other researchers, Chiarella concludes that babies are actively learning about human emotions through exposure to and experience with the world. The study was published in Infant Behavior and Development.