Earth & Conservation

Babies Appear to Understand Human Emotions at a Very Early Age

New research suggests 6-month-old infants interpret emotional states through facial and auditory information.

Jonathan Mcallister/EyeEm via Getty Images

It sounds cute, but it’s also a fact in developmental psychology: Babies like happy faces.

But scientists have long wondered whether babies recognize the happiness in their mother’s loving smile and friendly voice or simply react to her behavior because it’s familiar.

Now researchers in Switzerland have found that babies grasp happiness at 6 months old, a discovery that advances the argument that emotions are innate to humans rather than solely instilled through culture or other means.

Publishing in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers at the University of Geneva ran tests on 24 infants using sophisticate eye-scanning technology.

Study co-author Amaya Palama, a researcher in the university’s psychology and educational sciences department, and her colleagues presented the babies with the images of happy and angry faces while also playing sounds of happy, angry, or neutral voices. The babies didn’t do much when the voices were neutral or angry; they didn’t look at one face more than the other. But when the babies heard happy voices, they almost always looked at the face when it turned angry.

They had spotted the difference between the happy voice and the angry face, said Palama. “We know that babies look at things that interest them,” she said. “The baby will look more to unfamiliar things. They are attracted to novelty.”

At the same time, however, the reaction showed they had also associated the happy voice with the happy face. That meant they understood the concept of happiness.

“They make a link between the voice and faces, they recognize the emotion whatever the sense and modality,” she said. “They don’t just discriminate between the physical trait or acoustical outcome. If they can make a link between the emotional voice they heard and the emotional face they see, then we can confirm that they can recognize the significance of the emotion.”

The team received funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation.

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They’re now interested in conducting further studies with older children. After seven months, children begin identifying several facial expressions in addition to happiness, suggesting room for more insights.

In the meantime, Palama said the findings suggested that parents should learn how to regulate their emotions rather than develop them.

"It’s important for parents to express their emotions and be attentive to the emotions of their babies and interact, play, and don’t hesitate to express their emotions,” she said.

That meant that parents should not seek to shield their children from reasonable displays of negative emotions like anger.

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“They will be exposed at one moment or another,” she said. “It’s better that they are exposed in a context where you can explain to them what happened, and they can deal with the emotion. With older infants and children, when they feel emotion, it’s important for parents for encourage them to verbalize what they feel.”

Palama emphasized that some emotions were preferable to others, however.

“It’s better if you look more happy than angry,” she said.