Learning from Emotions in Infancy

Recognizing others’ emotions is an important skill to develop in life because it helps us to react to others in a socially appropriate manner. For example, if I identify that my friend is sad, it would be appropriate for me to approach and try to comfort her or ask why she is upset. However, if I recognize that the same friend is instead very angry, it may be more appropriate and logical for me to wait until she has calmed down to have a conversation with her. Thus, understanding how others are feeling is highly beneficial for navigating social interactions. From early in life, children begin to use the emotional information in their environment to help them with social interactions in this manner. But what many people are less familiar with is how, within two years of birth, infants can use emotional information to learn about other aspects of their environment.

One example of this comes from a study conducted with 12-month-old infants, an age where most infants are either crawling or walking. In this study, infants were placed at the top of a “visual cliff”, where there appears to be a steep drop off of several feet that the infants could fall down. In actuality, the entire “cliff” was covered by a piece of Plexiglass, so the infant was never in true danger of falling. In this study, the experimenters asked the infant’s mother to stand on the opposite side of the visual cliff from their infant and display a particular facial expression of emotion (Sorce, Emde, Campos, & Klinnert, 1985). Thus, in this paradigm, each infant was presented with an ambiguous, and potentially scary situation. There appeared to be a cliff which the infant should avoid, but their mother was on the opposite side expressing an emotion.

So, what did the infants do? The researchers found that when the mother expressed fear or anger, very few infants crossed the visual cliff. However, when the mother expressed happiness or interest, the majority of infants crossed the visual cliff. This shows that when the infants were presented with a situation where it was unclear what they should do (avoid the cliff, or approach their mother), the infants socially referenced their mother’s emotional expression and used that to decide how to behave. A follow-up study has shown that in the visual cliff paradigm, infants were even more likely to cross the cliff when hearing their mother express a positive tone of voice, even when they couldn’t see their mother’s facial expression (Vaish & Striano, 2004). These studies demonstrate that infants can determine how to respond to a new situation in their environment by referring to the emotional information provided by their mother.

This result showed that infants as young as 12 months of age can use emotions to guide their behavior. This skill is incredibly important for promoting exploration and learning. Because infants at this age are able to crawl or walk, they have the opportunity to explore their environment, which is crucial for learning how the world around them works. However, there are also many potential dangers in infants’ environments (such as sharp edges or stairs that they could fall down). For infants, using others’ emotional cues to guide behavior can help them to recognize potentially dangerous or scary situations, and to continue exploring and learning from the safer aspects of their environment.

From here, researchers wanted to see what other inferences infants could make about their environment from emotional information. One study looked at this by assessing whether infants can learn from “emotional eavesdropping” (Repacholi & Meltzoff, 2007). In this study, 18-month-old infants watched an adult actor play with an object in a particular way. Then, an experimenter entered the room, and either responded in an angry or neutral way to the actor’s actions. The emotional expression was always directed at the actor, and the infant was never involved in the exchange, which is why the task is referred to as “emotional eavesdropping”. After the emotion was displayed, the infants were given the object that the actor had played with, and were allowed to play with it themselves. The researchers found that the infants were significantly less likely to play with the objects in the same way as the actor if the experimenter had displayed anger than if they had reacted in a neutral fashion. Thus, the 18-month-old infants learned from the eavesdropped exchange and were able to adjust how they played with a new object depending on the emotion that they had seen from the experimenter.

Infants appear to not only recognize the emotions of others, but to use this information to inform their own actions. Researchers have recently coined the term “Affective Social Learning” (Clément & Dukes, 2017), which refers to the way in which we use emotional information to determine how someone else values a particular object or situation. Given the research discussed here, infants appear capable of affective social learning in some situations. In the visual cliff scenario, the infants may be learning how their mother interprets the cliff by referencing her facial expression and vocal tone. Similarly, infants in the “emotional eavesdropping” study may be learning how others value the actions performed with the objects by focusing on the experimenter’s emotional reaction. In these ways, even before their second birthday, infants can learn about objects and situations in their environment by referring to the emotions of those around them. Thus, learning how to understand and interpret emotions is a crucial skill to develop early in life, and it importance should not be overlooked.



Clément, F. & Dukes, D. (2017). Social appraisal and social referencing: Two components of affective social learning. Emotion Review, 9, 253-261.

Repacholi, B. M., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2007). Emotional eavesdropping: Infants selectively respond to indirect emotional signals. Child Development, 78, 503-521.

Sorce, J. F., Emde, R. N., Campos, J. J., & Klinnert, M. D. (1985). Maternal emotional signaling: Its effect on the visual cliff behavior of 1-year-olds. Developmental Psychology, 21, 195-200.

Vaish, A. & Striano, T. (2004). Is visual reference necessary? Contributions of facial versus vocal cues in 12-month-olds’ social referencing behavior. Developmental Science, 7, 261-269.


Thumbnail photo credit: Ryan Franco on Unsplash