March 27, 2007 -- Toddlers may change their behavior based on the emotions they see other people sharing, a new study shows.
The study comes from psychologists Betty Repacholi, PhD, and Andrew Meltzoff, PhD, of the University of Washington.
"The fascinating result of this study is how sensitive toddlers are to the emotional dynamics of the interactions around them," Repacholi says in a university news release.
"They don't need to try out a behavior on their own and get rewarded or punished; they can watch what an older brother or sister does and learn from what happens to them," says Repacholi, an assistant professor of psychology.
Toddlers Watching Adults
The study, published in Child Development, included 168 toddlers who were 18 months old.
The toddlers sat in their parent's lap and watched an unrelated woman play with a toy. The toddlers were interested in the toy; many smiled, cooed, or reached toward the toy.
Next, another unrelated woman entered the scene and angrily reprimanded the grown-up for playing with the toy. The toddlers watched both adults carefully during the outburst but didn't seem upset.
The reprimander then did one of three things: leave the room, turn their back on the toddlers, or stay in the room with a calm expression on their face.
Lastly, the toddlers got the chance to play with the adults' toy. They hesitated if the reprimander was still in the room, but they eagerly played with the toy if the reprimander had left the room or turned their back on the toddler.
In another series of tests, other 18-month-old toddlers saw a calm discussion between the two adults. Those kids didn't hesitate to play with the toy when given the chance, no matter who was in the room.
In short, the toddlers engaged in "emotional eavesdropping" and adjusted their behavior to avoid provoking anger.
"Children have their emotional antenna up all the time, and they learn from eavesdropping on the behaviors of others," says Meltzoff in the news release.
Meltzoff is a psychology professor and co-director of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.
The study is the first to test whether babies can take in emotional information directed at someone else and apply it to themselves, notes Repacholi.
For toddlers, emotional eavesdropping is "a pretty adaptive way of interpreting what is important and what they can get away with," Repacholi says.