Two Emory psychologists found that toddlers at just 24 months begin to modify their behavior in response to the presence and judgement of others, about two to three years younger than researchers previously believed.  

Doctoral candidate Sara Valencia Botto (19G) and Professor of Psychology Philippe Rochat found that not only were toddlers able to recognize people’s reactions to their behaviors, but they also changed their behaviors based on who was watching.

“We’re more generous in public, we cheat less in public, we adorn ourselves by putting on makeup and wearing designer brands in public,” Botto said. “Impression management is a very important driving factor in human psychology, but we didn’t know much about when [in a child’s development] this emerged.”

Botto began collecting data in 2014, and her findings revealed that children acted differently when they sensed that adults could be evaluating them. Follow-up studies revealed that children also responded differently based on whether nearby adults responded with positive or negative emotion.

Rochat said the study’s findings could cause parents to be more conscientious of their actions around children.

“The more we know about toddlers and infants, the more we can inform parents and caregivers, so that they might practice more caution in the ways they act around children,” Rochat said.

Although the results suggest children make these behavioral modifications by 24 months, additional studies are needed to determine if younger children adopt these behaviors, according to Emory Infant and Child Lab Lab Coordinator Natalie Eldred.

The toddlers who participated in the initial 2014 study are now four to five years old and available for further research, according to Botto. She hopes to examine how different socio-cognitive capabilities, such as a child’s ability to infer someone else’s mental state, might contribute to one’s sensitivity to judgment.

“There are individuals with social anxiety, and on the other end of the spectrum, there are individuals with autism,” Botto said. “If we’re able to pinpoint the factors contributing to this phenomenon’s emergence in development, then hopefully we could gain greater insight into what contributes to these individual differences in older children and adults.”

The study was composed of four separate scenarios. In the first, Botto showed children how to operate a robot using a remote control and then observed the children using the remote when researchers either watched the child with an attentive expression or pretended to read a magazine. Children showed more inhibition when watched attentively, prompting Botto to conduct a second experiment.

During the initial demonstration of this follow-up experiment, a researcher pressed two remotes: one associated with positive feedback from the researcher and one associated with negative feedback from the researcher. After teaching the children how to press each of the remotes, the researcher then pushed the remotes toward the children. The children were more likely to use the first remote — associated with positive feedback — when the researcher was watching the child but used the second remote — associated with negative feedback — more often when the researcher was not watching.

When researchers gave a neutral response during a third experiment, children were not more likely to choose one remote in particular.

In the fourth experiment, one researcher gave a positive response while the other gave a negative response to children moving a toy. When the researcher who gave positive responses was watching, children moved the toy more often than when the researcher with the negative response was watching.

“One experiment isn’t enough to really be confident in a phenomenon, especially if other literature hasn’t documented it before,” Botto said. “The fact that we were able to show this across four studies and 144 children provides stronger support for our results.”

CORRECTION (9/5/18 at 5:42 p.m.): A previous version of this article provided incorrect examples of socio-cognitive capabilities. In addition, the procedure of the second experiment was incorrectly explained. The article has been updated to reflect both of these errors.

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Lauren is an Environmental Science and Media Studies double major from Braselton, Georgia. She is a staff writer for the Emory Wheel, a member of Pi Beta Phi, president of Emory Running Club and a member of the Emory Environment Senate Committee. In her free time, she likes to play with her four dogs, including one named Kat!