Researchers have long known that infants in unfamiliar situations look to their parents' emotions for guidance about how to respond, a process known as social referencing. A new study, published in the January issue of Developmental Psychology (Vol. 43, No. 1), uncovers some of the mechanisms at work and suggests that infants pay especially close attention to negative emotions.
The researchers taught 34 parents to act disgusted, happy or neutral on cue with an instructional video. The parents then sat down with their 12-month-olds, and together they encountered one of six unfamiliar wind-up toys. The parent expressed a prescribed emotion, and researchers recorded how quickly the infants looked back at the adults after seeing the toy. Then, the researchers put event-related potential (ERP) caps on the babies and showed them videos of the wind-up toys.
When the infants watched toys that the parents had responded to with disgust, their brain activity peaked. Later, the infants paid more attention to those toys than the ones the parents had responded to neutrally or positively.
The findings suggest that infants may make particular note of their parents' negative emotions-a tendency that could help them learn to avoid dangerous or poisonous things, says study author Leslie J. Carver, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego.
"Babies put sand and bugs in their mouths, and parents naturally respond to that with disgust," notes Carver. "If babies can make that connection then they are going to probably be more vigilant about the thing that triggers the response."
What's more, the infants who paid the most attention to their parents' emotion to begin with, later showed the most brain activity when watching a video of the toy. And, in the final test, they were more likely to keep a keen watch on the actual toy.
"That suggests that when babies look at adults what they are really doing is making an association between the emotion and the thing that's triggering the emotion," says Carver. "How well they do that influences how well they use that emotion to regulate their own behavior."