As adults, we've learned to alter our behavior in the presence of angry people. But as this fascinating experiment reveals, even toddlers as young as 15 months have already figured this out.
This new study from the Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington reveals that children as young as 15 months can detect anger when watching other people's social interactions — and then use that information to guide their own behavior. As this video shows, toddlers will regulate their behavior in order to avoid making adults angry.
The researchers studied 150 toddlers at 15 months of age using an even mix of girls and boys. Each child sat on their parents' lap and watched as a facilitator sat at a table across from them and demonstrated how to use a few different toys. A release from UoW explains:
Each toy had movable parts that made sounds, such as a strand of plastic beads that made a rattle when dropped into a plastic cup and a small box that "buzzed" when pressed with a wooden stick. The children watched eagerly – leaning forward and sometimes pointing enthusiastically.
Then a second person, referred to as the "emoter," entered the room and sat down on a chair near the table. The experimenter repeated the demonstration and the emoter complained in an angry voice, calling the experimenter's actions with the toys "aggravating" and "annoying."
After witnessing the simulated argument, the children had a chance to play with the toys, but under slightly different circumstances. For some, the emoter left the room or turned her back so she couldn't see what the child was doing. In these situations, toddlers eagerly grabbed the toy and copied the actions they had seen in the demonstration.
In other groups, the angered emoter maintained a neutral facial expression while either watching the child or looking at a magazine. Most toddlers in these groups hesitated before touching the toy, waiting about four seconds on average. And when they finally did reach out, the children were less likely to imitate the action the experimenter had demonstrated.
Results showed that toddlers who aren't even speaking yet can use visual and social cues to understand other people. That's a rather sophisticated cognitive skill for a child so young.
Interestingly, the study, which now appears in Cognitive Development, also linked toddlers' impulsive tendencies with their tendency to ignore other people's anger. This suggests an early indicator for children who may become less willing to abide by rules. In this sense, the new study is a nice corollary to the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.
"Self-control ranks as one of the single most important skills that children acquire in the first three years of life," noted study co-author Andrew Melzoff. "We measured the origins of self-control and found that most of the toddlers were able to regulate their behavior. But we also discovered huge individual variability, which we think will predict differences in children as they grow up and may even predict important aspects of school readiness."
By the way, the researchers did not factor in how much previous conflict the toddlers had seen at home or elsewhere.
Read the entire study at Cognitive Development: "Infant, control thyself: Infants' integration of multiple social cues to regulate their imitative behavior".