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Babies Can Detect Fake Emotions

A new study looking at babies’ interpretation of emotional expression finds that babies from as young as 18 months can detect when facial reactions do not match an emotional event that just occurred. In other words, by 18 months, babies can tell if you’re faking it.

Psychology researchers from Concordia University recruited 92 infants aged 15 months and 18 months for the study. In a lab setting, babies watched a researcher express emotional reactions after a pretend experience – the researcher reacted in pain when pretending to hurt her finger; or showed a mismatched emotion by being sad when presented with a desired toy.

While 15-month-olds responded to all sad faces with empathy as observed by their own facial expressions, the 18-month-olds appeared to detect when the adult’s facial expression did not match the experience. They were observed to spend more time looking at the researcher's face and checked back more frequently with their caregiver in the room (suggesting they were checking the reaction of a trusted source). They also showed empathy toward the person only when the sad face was justified, for example, when the researcher pretended to be hurt.

The researchers, whose findings were published in Infancy: The Official Journal of the International Society on Infant Studies, draw conclusions from their findings about the development of empathy: "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, " said clinical psychologist, Sabrina Chiarella.

So it appears that between 15 months and 18 months of age, infants’ cognitive abilities have matured enough that they can draw on their experiences of positive encounters and discriminate when emotional reactions do not match that experience.

The implications are significant, especially for caregivers, says psychology professor, Diane Poulin-Dubois: "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."

Watch this baby react to the mismatched emotion.


Image from freedigitalphotos.net