Babies are aware of and respond to adults’ anger and even make attempts to appease adults they think are likely to act out in anger according to new research from University of Washington.

While adults typically arrive at snap judgments about other peoples’ anger, it is difficult to tell if babies do the same.For instance, when adults see a person screaming at other drivers while on the freeway, we may assume that person is irritable and quick-tempered.

Anger management course online

Babies Tune Into Adult Anger

Two new studies looked at 270 15-month-old infants and discovered that babies arrive at similar conclusions and even find ways to pacify adults they believe are quick-tempered.

Scientists at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS), found that 15-month-old babies remember an adult’s irritated behavior and generalize it to other social settings. In other words, the babies remember who has a temper and will give in to those adults across different settings.

Our research suggests that babies will do whatever they can to avoid being the target of anger,” said lead author Betty Repacholi. “At this young of an age, they have already worked out a way to stay safe. It’s a smart, adaptive response.”

In one study, Repacholi and co-authors looked at how exposing babies to an adult stranger’s anger toward another adult would impact the babies’ response in a new situation. Do the babies remember that anger and predict that the anger will occur again?

“Our research shows that babies are carefully paying attention to the emotional reactions of adults,” stated co-author Andrew Meltzoff.

He added, ”Babies make snap judgments as to whether an adult is anger-prone. They pigeon-hole adults more quickly than we thought.”

The experiment looked like this: The babies, both boys and girls, sat on their parents’ laps near a researcher, the “Experimenter.”

The baby watched the Experimenter playing with several toys. A second researcher, called the “Emoter,” would act in either a neutral way (e.g., ”That’s entertaining.”) or an irritated way (e.g., “That’s aggravating!”). Then the baby was given an opportunity to play with that same toy.

Researchers looked at how quickly the babies imitated the Experimenter’s actions. Babies who saw the irritated outburst by the Emoter were less likely to play with that toy or to duplicate the Experimenter’s actions than those who saw a neutral response from the Emoter.

You can watch a video demonstrating the baby-anger experiment here:

For the next step, the Experimenter demonstrated irritated Emoter now acted neutrally. “We wanted to see if babies would treat the anger they had seen before as a one-off event or whether they see it as being part of the person’s character,” said Repacholi.

Interestingly, when given the opportunity to play with this new toy, the babies who were familiar with the Emoter’s irritable past avoided playing with the toy, as compared with babies who were in the neutral group.

It’s as if the baby doesn’t trust that the Emoter is now calm,” Repacholi stated. “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.”

A second study by the team found that babies will look to pacify adults they deem at risk of becoming angry.

Using a similar experimental design, another group of babies — 72 15-month-olds, with an equal number of boys and girls — first watched either the “angry” or “neutral” Emoter’s reaction to toys played with by the Experimenter.

Then, they added a slight variation: the Experimenter brought out new toys created to be appealing to the tots, such as a toy with a small ball that illuminated when rotated.

Sitting on their parents’ laps, the babies got to play with the desirable toy for a moment before the Emoter — who had a neutral facial expression and wasn’t showing any irritability at that moment — asked to have a turn.

How did the babies respond? The little ones who had witnessed the Emoter show anger quickly gave up the toys. Sixty-nine percent of tots in the “anger” group gave up their toys compared to only 46 percent of tots in the “neutral” group.

“I was so surprised to see the infants give the toys away — it was like they were appeasing or compromising with the adult,” stated Repacholi. “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.”

Looked at together, these two studies demonstrate how 15-month-olds:

  • make quick judgments about people’s tendency to become angry
  • can have negative emotions, such as anger, dominate their view of a person’s character, and
  • quickly learn to infer that a person who has shown anger once is likely to become angry again even if the setting has changed.

“Our studies show that babies are very tuned into other people’s anger,” Repacholi said. “For parents, it’s important to be mindful of how powerful that emotion is for babies.”

Added Meltzoff, “Babies are ’emotion detectives.’ They watch and listen to our emotions, remember how we acted in the past, and use this to predict how we will act in the future. How long these first impressions last is an important question.”

This provides much needed motivation for parents who are questioning how much of an impact their anger has on their young children.

Journal References:

1Betty M. Repacholi, Andrew N. Meltzoff, Theresa M. Hennings, Ashley L. Ruba. Transfer of Social Learning Across Contexts: Exploring Infants’ Attribution of Trait-Like Emotions to Adults. Infancy, 2016; DOI: 10.1111/infa.12136

2Betty M. Repacholi, Andrew N. Meltzoff, Tamara Spiewak Toub, Ashley L. Ruba. Infants’ generalizations about other people’s emotions: Foundations for trait-like attributions.. Developmental Psychology, 2016; 52 (3): 364 DOI: 10.1037/dev0000097


March 21, 2016


University of Washington