Babies from at least 18 months can tell when feelings and reactions don’t match.
“Our research shows that babies cannot be fooled into believing something that causes pain results in pleasure” says Psychology Professor Diane Poulin-Dubois from Concordia University.
“Adults often try to shield infants from distress by putting on a happy face following a negative experience.
“But babies know the truth: as early as 18 months, they can implicitly understand which emotions go with which events” she explains.
The research involved 92 babies aged between 15 and 18 months who watched actors going through emotional reactions and experiences.
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. T
hey 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.
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
The study is published in Infancy: The Official Journal of the International Society on Infant Studies.