New Study Reports Babies Make Quick Judgments About Adults’ Anger

Infants have an adaptive ability to discern negative emotions and use it to stay safe

As adults, we make quick decisions about people’s personalities. If someone starts an argument with a bus driver, we assume that they’re confrontational. If someone holds a door open for an eldery man, we assume that they're kind. Our ability to discern negative traits is especially keen. Whether those assumptions reflect who that person really is, is not so clear. Still, we unconsciously make note of their actions and categorize them based on those observations.

Turns out babies do the same thing, forming generalizations of others and just like us, they’re keenly aware of adults who demonstrate anger. This was revealed through two new studies conducted by scientists at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Science (I-LABS) who worked with hundreds of 15-month-old infants. 

The research showed that infants try to appease adults they believe are prone to anger. Lead author Betty Repacholi, an I-LABS faculty scientist says, “Our research shows that babies will do whatever they can to avoid being the target of anger.” Repacholi also notes “at this young of an age, they have already worked out a way to stay safe. It’s a smart, adaptive response.”

This means that babies are paying close attention to the emotional reactions of adults, explains co-author Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of I-LABs. Apparently it’s not just adults that pigeonhole others, babies are doing it too and even quicker than was realized, making snap judgments about whether an adult is anger-prone.

In the experiment, the infant sat on their parent’s lap, across from them was the ‘demonstrator,’ the one who showed how to play with the toys and the ‘emoter,’ the one who spoke about the toy with either a neutral voice or a stern voice. After seeing the angry outburst from the ‘emoter,’ babies were less likely to play with the toy when given the chance. They avoided the toy that had been associated with the anger of the adult. 

Interestingly, when the ‘emoter’ went back to neutral and the child was given the chance to play with the toy again, they often still avoided it, as if not trusting the adult’s calmness. This implies that infants are more likely to see that anger as being a part of the adult’s personality, instead of a one-off event. “Once babies have detected that someone’s prone to anger, it’s hard to dismiss. They’re taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach, where they’re not going to take a risk even though the situation has apparently changed,” says Repacholi.    

This study shows just how in tune babies are to other people’s anger and how vital it is for parents to be mindful of babies’ sensitivity to the powerful emotion. Meltzoff adds, “Babies are ‘emotion detectives.’ They watch and listen to our emotions, remember how we acted in the past, and use this to predict how we will act in the future.”

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