They're not even 2 years old yet and toddlers can already spot someone who is being mean and adjust their own actions accordingly, a new study found.
In one of the experiments the team from the University of Washington recorded, a researcher demonstrated how to play with a toy to a toddler. The toddler watched her intently as she put a strand of beads into a cup. She repeated this action several times.
The boy was also all ears when someone else entered the room and harshly told this researcher that what she was doing was "aggravating." When this researcher then passed the beads and cup over to the boy, he didn't make a move.
He looked at the beads, at the "mean" woman, back at the beads, at the researcher who had been chastised and then once again at the beads. He gave a long, hard look at those beads, seeming to contemplate his next move and decided to do nothing. His hands remained unmoving on the table.
See the toddler's reaction in the short experiment for yourself:
“At 15 months of age, children are trying to understand their social world and how people will react,” Betty Repacholi, lead author of the study published in Cognitive Development, said in a statement. “In this study we found that toddlers who aren’t yet speaking can use visual and social cues to understand other people – that’s sophisticated cognitive skills for 15-month-olds.”
While the child in the experiment above seemed to pick up on these social cues, the study also observed toddlers who did quite the opposite, which might suggest they'll be less likely to follow the rules in the future.
In total, the researchers evaluated 150 15-month-old toddlers. One researcher demonstrated how to play with various toys, while another researcher, referred to as the emoter, would come in and say it the activity was aggravating or annoying. In some cases, the emoter stayed in the room while the toddler was offered the toy, while in others she left or turned her back.
When the emoter couldn't see what they were doing, the toddlers picked up the toys. However, when the emoter remained facing the toddler with a neutral expression, the study authors found that the toddler at least hesitated to touch the toy. If they did pick it up after a few seconds, they played with it in a different way than was demonstrated to them.
“Self-control ranks as one of the single most important skills that children acquire in the first three years of life,” co-author Andrew Meltzoff said in a statement. “We measured the origins of self-control and found that most of the toddlers were able to regulate their behavior. But we also discovered huge individual variability, which we think will predict differences in children as they grow up and may even predict important aspects of school readiness.”