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Turns Out Shaming Isn't Just for Grown-ups

Photograph by Twenty20

From the second children are born, every move they make is being monitored and recorded. It seems as if everyone is watching: parents, siblings, grandparents, distant cousins, parents' co-workers, teachers and friends. And, because they are babies, they're "too cute" to be critiqued, right?

Still, they are human, and at some point, their luck is going to change. But when?

According to a new study by psychologists at Emory University in Atlanta, toddlers are aware they are being judged even before they can form a complete sentence. Even more compelling, Sara Valencia Botto, an Emory Ph.D. candidate and first author of the study, says that kids, by the age of 24 months, will alter their behavior to seek a positive response.

“There is something specifically human in the way that we're sensitive to the gaze of others,” adds Philippe Rochat, an Emory professor of psychology who specializes in childhood development and is a 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."

Botto says she believes that "image management" is an important element of being human.

"Many people rate their fear of public speaking above their fear of dying," she says. "If we want to understand human nature, we need to understand when and how the foundation for caring about image emerges."

Toddlers are aware they are being judged even before they can form a complete sentence.

Even so, how can you accurately assess the perception of a toddler who can barely form a sentence?

The answer is simple: You experiment—repeatedly—using 144 children between the ages of 14 months and 24 months, and a remote-controlled robot toy.

In their first experiment, researchers showed a toddler how to use the remote to operate a robot. Then, they either watched the child with a neutral expression on their face or turned away and pretended to read a magazine. When the child was being watched, he or she showed more inhibition when hitting the buttons on the remote than they did when no one was looking.

The second experiment was equally as intriguing. In this one, they switched up their game and used two different remotes. Using the first one, researchers smiled and said, "Wow! Isn't that great?" With the second remote, they frowned and said, "Uh-oh! Oops. Oh no!" After inviting the child to play with the toy, researchers once again either watched them or turned away to look at the magazine.

Surprisingly—or maybe not—the majority of the children pressed the buttons on the remote associated with the positive response when they knew they were being monitored.

In total, researchers performed five experiments, including one that took into account the values expressed by the experimenter when interacting with the toy. Each time, the kids were much more likely to press the remote when the researcher who gave the positive response was watching.

So, it turns out toddlers are more aware of how they are being perceived than we thought. Remember that the next time you post pictures of them on Facebook and check back to see how many “likes” they got.

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