– Frances Ding ’17

We all know that parents tell their kids white lies to gloss over harsh parts of the world. But do children see through them? New research shows that even infants, at 18 months, may be able to tell when someone’s emotion doesn’t match with their experience.

Researchers at Concordia University recruited 15-month and 18-month old infants to watch actors as they performed different scenarios and displayed emotional reactions that either matched with or conflicted with their pantomimed experience. For example, the actor might perform a mismatched scenario by smiling after hurting her hand, or perform an emotionally consistent scenario by frowning when a toy was taken away.

The 15-month old infants did not react very differently to matched and mismatched scenarios, and they showed empathy to all the actor’s sad faces regardless. The 18-month old infants, instead, clearly noticed when the facial expressions conflicted with the actual experience of the actor. In cases of mismatch, the infants displayed much more “checking” behavior, looking back and forth between the actor and their caregiver in the room as if to check the reaction of someone trustworthy. The 18-month olds also selectively showed empathy to only those actors whose sad faces were justified based on the scenario.

The researchers explained that the universal display of empathy from the 15-month old infants was probably adaptive so that young children would be capable of immediately reacting to danger or distress. However, older children need to develop the skills to recognize links between behavior and experiential triggers, and discern when people’s behavior matches what is expected. These skills would be essential for success in the social structure of human societies.

Next on the researchers’ agenda is studying whether infants who see individuals present emotionally unreliable signals will be less willing to interact with those individuals – perhaps by being more hesitant to help or learn from them.

Parents might want to reconsider their strategy the next time they try to feed their kids bitter vegetables with a smile on their face. If the baby knows what’s coming, he or she may not be so easy to fool.

Image credit: bwalles.com

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