Toddlers appear to be sensitive to the opinions of others and will modify their behavior accordingly when others are watching, according to a new study published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

“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 first author Sara Valencia Botto, a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University in Atlanta.

Although previous research has shown this behavior in four- to five-year-olds, the new study suggests that it may emerge much sooner, Botto said.

“There is something specifically human in the way that we’re sensitive to the gaze of others, and how systematic and strategic we are about controlling that gaze,” said Dr.  Philippe Rochat, an Emory professor of psychology who specializes in childhood development and is senior author of the study.

“At the very bottom, our concern for image management and reputation is about the fear of rejection, one of the main engines of the human psyche.”

This concern for reputation weaves its way into everything from spending money on makeup and designer brands to checking how many “likes” we get on a Facebook post.

“Image management is fascinating to me because it’s so important to being human,” Botto said. “Many people rate their fear of public speaking above their fear of dying. If we want to understand human nature, we need to understand when and how the foundation for caring about image emerges.”

The study involved a series of experiments with 144 children aged 14 to 24 months who were encouraged to play with a remote-controlled robot toy. In one experiment, 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 toddler was being watched, he or she showed more inhibition when hitting the buttons on the remote than when the researcher was looking at the magazine.

In another 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 while using the second remote, the researcher frowned and said “Uh-oh! Oops, oh no!” After inviting the child to play with the toy, the researcher once again either watched the child or turned to the magazine.

The toddlers pressed the buttons on the remote that had originally yielded the researcher’s positive response much more while being watched. They also used the remote associated with the negative response more when not being watched.

In the third experiment, which served as a control, the researcher gave a neutral response of “Oh, wow!” while demonstrating how to use the two remotes. The toddlers no longer chose one remote over the other depending on whether the researcher was watching them.

The control experiment showed that in the second experiment the children really did take into account the values expressed by the researcher when interacting with the toy, and based on those values changed their behavior depending on whether they were being watched, Botto said.

In the final experiment, two researchers sat next to each other and used one remote. One researcher smiled and gave a positive response, “Yay! The toy moved!” while pressing the remote.

The second researcher frowned and said, “Yuck! The toy moved!” when pressing the same remote. The toddler was then encouraged to play with the toy as the two researchers alternated between either watching or turning their back to the child. They found that the children were far more likely to press the remote when the positive-response researcher 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.”

Source: Emory Health Sciences