In Brief

Children as young as 12 months old appear able to "read" and respond to TV actors' emotions, according to a report on two recent studies.

The studies show that "even at one year of age, babies are very aware of the negative emotions around them," says co-author Donna umme, PhD, a psychology professor at Tufts University. "And they don't have to be engaged in the exchange to process the information."

Each study included 32 infants. The babies in the first study were 12 months old; in the second, they were 10 months old. The infants watched a 20-second, taped segment in which a woman focused on a targeted toy--such as a 12-inch-long spiral letter holder or a garden hose adapter connected to a plastic valve--before her.

In each trial (negative, positive and neutral), the actress used facial expressions and vocal emotional signals while talking about the toy to convey fear, happiness or neutrality. The description of each object was constant throughout the trials. The two objects on-screen, as well as a third "distracter" toy, were visible to the baby during the video. A researcher pushed these objects within the child's reach when the video ended.

The 12-month-old infants touched the target objects less and displayed more negative facial expressions during the negative-emotion trial than during the neutral trial. However, the babies' behavior during the positive trial was not significantly different from their behavior in the neutral trial. The 10-month-old infants showed no significant difference in any of the trials.

The study, published in the January/February issue of Child Development (Vol. 74, No. 1), suggests that 12-month-old babies can discern when an emotion is being directed toward one object and not another, says Mumme. Less certain, she says, is the degree to which showing emotions on television may have affected the way the babies absorbed and applied them. Mumme is working to replicate the study using live acting instead of a televised performance. She will also assist in a study in which babies must wait a longer time to play with the toys after watching the video.

"When a baby is watching someone on television talking about how yummy a bowl of cereal is, it doesn't suddenly appear in their living room," Mumme explains.