Can’t fool toddlers: Preschoolers can detect politeness from one’s tone, facial expressions

BARCELONA, Spain – How early can we recognize emotions in other people? Current evidence suggests that infants can use both voice and facial clues to detect emotions in other people. However, the evidence for emotional detection is more controversial among preschool-aged children. To show how smart these toddlers are, scientists in Spain, Switzerland, and the United States demonstrated that children as young as three years-old can use either someone’s tone of voice or their facial expressions to figure out their emotional state.

The international team focused on a group of toddlers who were all asked to do something by an adult. Controlling the environment and ensuring the adults presenting the request used the same exact words, researchers assessed how well these children could infer emotion from intonation (audio-only), facial expression (visual only), or both. This research is the first to demonstrate that three-year-old children can interpret someone’s emotional state using these three cues.

“This has implications for parents, childcare and pre-school teachers because it suggests that they should be aware of childrens’ social and pragmatic behavior, which often is only focused on verbal content,” first author Iris Hübscher says in a university release.

For preschoolers, how you say it matters more than what you say

The study examined 36 English-speaking three-year-old boys and girls from the United States. An adult caregiver asked each of the children to give them a toy, either with or without saying “please”. The adults also displayed either polite or impolite facial expressions and tone of voice when making their request. They did not however change the specific words they used between experimental conditions.

The researchers then determined whether the children could figure out whether the caretaker was being polite or not. They found that the type of clue didn’t matter – the children figured out their caretaker’s emotional state equally well from audio, visual, and audio-visual cues. Importantly, using or omitting “please” didn’t affect the results.

Senior author Pilar Prieto says the youngsters’ ability to correctly infer emotion irrespective of using a polite word like “please” suggests that it is important to expose toddlers to as many polite audio and visual cues as possible. The researchers from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain adds learning cues is more important than emphasizing the use of polite words.

The investigators are careful to point out that these results may be specific to culture and language. They say similar studies in children from different backgrounds are necessary to determine whether a child’s ability to infer emotion from audio and visual clues is universal. They also emphasize the importance of studying emotion-inference in older children as well. This could provide critical information about the development and evolution of emotion inference. Such studies may help explain why emotion inference in adults isn’t as clear-cut as it appears to be among infants and toddlers.

This study appears in the Journal of Politeness Research