Even before toddlers learn to speak, they are aware of how others are judging them, a study has revealed.
Psychologists from Emory University found that children as young as two are sensitive to the opinions of others and will change their behaviour when they feel like they are being watched.
The study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, noted that while previous research has documented this behaviour in five-year-olds, this study suggests it may emerge sooner.
“We’ve shown that by the age of 24 months, children are not only aware that other people may be evaluating them, but that they will alter their behavior to seek a positive response,” said Sara Valencia Botto, an Emory PhD candidate and author of the study.
There were 144 children in the study aged between 14 and 24 months. For the experiment, they were using a remotely controlled robot toy.
In one strand of the study, a researcher showed a toddler how to use the remote to operate the robot. The researcher then either watched the child with a neutral expression or turned away and pretended to read a magazine. When the child was being watched, he or she showed more shyness when hitting the buttons on the remote than when the researcher was not watching.
In a second experiment, the researcher used two different remotes when demonstrating the toy to the child. While using the first remote, the researcher smiled and said, “Wow! Isn’t that great?” And when using the second remote, the researcher frowned and said “Uh-oh! Oops!”
The researcher then invited the child to play with the toy and watched the child or turned to the magazine. They found the children pressed the buttons on the remote associated with the positive response from the researcher significantly more while being watched. They used the remote associated with the negative response more when not being watched.
During a third experiment, the researcher gave a neutral response of “Oh, wow!” when demonstrating how to use the two remotes. The children no longer chose one remote over the other depending on whether the researcher was watching them.
A final experiment involved two researchers sitting next to one another and using one remote. One researcher smiled and gave a positive response, “Yay! The toy moved!” when pressing the remote. The second researcher frowned and said, “Yuck! The toy moved!” when pressing the same remote. Results showed that the children were much more likely to press the remote when the researcher who gave the positive response was watching.
“We were surprised by the flexibility of the children’s sensitivity to others and their reactions,” Botto said. “They could track one researcher’s values of two objects and two researchers’ values of one object. It reinforces the idea that children are usually smarter than we think.”