Research: Babies Know When You’re Faking

In teacher training we explain that congruence between the verbal and non-verbal is important. When feelings and reactions don’t align, new research by Sabrina Chiarella and Diane Poulin-Dubois shows that kids can tell there’s something wrong.

From the press release:

To perform the research, she and PhD candidate Sabrina Chiarella recruited 92 infants at the 15 and 18-month mark. In a lab setting, the babies watched as an actor went through several scenarios in which emotional reactions went with or against pantomimed experiences. In one scenario, the researcher showed a mismatched emotion by being sad when presented with a desired toy. In another, she expressed an emotion that went with the experience by reacting in pain when pretending to hurt her finger.

At 15 months, the infants did not show a significant difference in reactions to these events, showing empathy through their facial expressions to all sad faces. This indicates that the understanding of the link between a facial expression following an emotional experience is an ability that has yet to develop at that stage.

At 18 months, however, the infants clearly detected when facial expressions did not match the experience. They spent more time looking at the researcher’s face and checked back more frequently with the caregiver in the room with them so that they could gauge the reaction of a trusted source. They also showed empathy toward the person only when her sad face was justified; that is, only when the researcher was sad or in pain when she was supposed to be.

Chiarella explains that the indiscriminate show of concern to sad faces in the younger infants is an adaptive behaviour. “The ability to detect sadness and then react immediately has an evolutionary implication. However, to function effectively in the social world, children need to develop the ability to understand others’ behaviours by inferring what is going on internally for those around them.”

The researchers are currently examining whether infants who are exposed to an individual who is emotionally unreliable will affect in their willingness to help or learn from that individual.

There is also a video:

Abstract of the research:

Infants are attuned to emotional facial and vocal expressions, reacting most prominently when they are exposed to negative expressions. However, it remains unknown if infants can detect whether a person’s emotions are justifiable given a particular context. The focus of the current paper was to examine whether infants react the same way to unjustified (e.g., distress following a positive experience) and justified (e.g., distress following a negative experience) emotional reactions. Infants aged 15 and 18 months were shown an actor experiencing negative and positive experiences, with one group exposed to an actor whose emotional reactions were consistently unjustified (i.e., did not match the event), while the other saw an actor whose emotional reactions were justified (i.e., always matched the event). Infants’ looking times and empathic reactions were examined. Only 18‐month‐olds detected the mismatching facial expressions: Those in the unjustified group showed more hypothesis testing (i.e., checking) across events than the justified group. Older infants in the justified group also showed more concerned reactions to negative expressions than those in the unjustified group. The present findings indicate that infants implicitly understand how the emotional valence of experiences is linked to subsequent emotional expressions.

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