All About Babies

Babies Know When You're Angry, and Want to Appease You

New research finds babies won't easily forget seeing anger-prone behavior in adults, even if that behavior is directed at someone else.

scared confused baby Shutterstock
A new body of research will make you think twice the next time you go to yell at your hubby in front of your baby. In fact, the studies confirm that babies can tell if an adult is anger-prone, and they may try to change their behavior to appease that person.

"Our research suggests that babies will do whatever they can to avoid being the target of anger. At this young of an age, they have already worked out a way to stay safe. It's a smart, adaptive response," explains lead author Betty Repacholi, from the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS).

Here's what researchers observed after looking at hundreds of 15-month-olds in two separate experiments:

For the first one, the results of which were published in the journal Developmental Psychology, the aim was to expose babies to the anger of an unfamiliar adult—so someone they didn't already know—interacting with another adult, and see how the little ones reacted.

The setup was simple: The baby was held on his or her parent's lap, and across the table an "Experimenter" played with a series of toys. Then an "Emoter" would react, either in a neutral way, or would appear angry or aggravated.

When researchers allowed the baby to have a turn with a toy, they noticed something interesting. Babies were less likely to want to play with a toy the Emoter reacted negatively to; they were also less likely to imitate how they saw the toy being played with. But when the reaction was neutral, babies played with the toy like they were shown.

Even more fascinating: The Emoter engaged in a second round of playing with the same toy that previously angered him, but this time, acted in a neutral way. Still, the babies were turned off to those toys.

"It's as if the baby doesn't trust that the Emoter is now calm. Once babies have detected that someone's prone to anger, it's hard to dismiss. They're taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach, where they're not going to take a risk even though the situation has apparently changed," explained Repacholi.

The second study, which was published in the journal Infancy, built on the first. This time the Experimenter produced very enticing toys for the babies and they were allowed to play with them first. After a bit, the Emoter neutrally asked for a turn to play. Now here's where it gets really interesting: 69 percent of babies who witnessed the angry Emoter turned over the toy. Meanwhile, just 46 percent of the babies shared with the Emoter who had only ever acted in a neutral manner in front of them.

"I was so surprised to see the infants give the toys away—it was like they were appeasing or compromising with the adult," Repacholi said. "They didn't want to risk making the previously angry adult mad again. They didn't act this way with the other adult who had not shown anger."

So here's the takeaway: We need to be aware of how we act in front of our babies. As Repacholi puts it, "Our studies show that babies are very tuned into other people's anger. For parents, it's important to be mindful of how powerful that emotion is for babies."

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.