How Babies Quickly Learn to Judge Adults

Susan Pinker:

Adults often make snap judgments about babies. First impressions lead us to assign them personalities, such as fearful, active or easy to please, and with good reason. Fifty years of evidence shows that babies begin life with traits that set the stage for how they interact with the world—and how the world reacts to them.

That might be one reason why siblings can have such wildly different takes on their own families. Once a mother has assessed her child as shy or fussy, she tends to tailor her behavior to that baby’s personality.

But what if babies make hard and fast judgments about us, too? Just because they can’t say much doesn’t mean they don’t have strong opinions. New research shows that babies are astute observers of the emotional tenor of adult interactions and censor their own behavior accordingly. Published in the March issue of Developmental Psychology, the study shows that infants who get a glimpse of a stranger involved in an angry exchange with another stranger will then act more tentatively during play.