Your toddler is a good judge of character – able to identify clues about the kindness, approachability and even competence of new people.
Recent studies have found this tendency emerges in toddlers, with children as young as three provided adult-like assessments on character attributes such as strong, nice and smart, based on facial expressions.
The study’s findings
The research, conducted by scientists at Harvard University, and published in the journal Developmental Psychology, has found that your young human can identify good traits in people, finding them trustworthy. “We have a misguided notion that children are empty vessels into which culture slowly pours itself as they mature,” co-author and psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, comments. “This research shows that perception of people, however inaccurate those judgements might be, emerge early in humans.”
One study found that, firstly, children identify trustworthy versus untrustworthy faces (a relaxed expression compared to wide, intensely staring eyes); dominant versus submissive (a scowling face with tight lips compared to elevated brows and slightly downturned mouth); and competent versus incompetent (tightly focused eyes and mouth compared to an unfocused look and expressionless mouth). When asked, children identified those who were trustworthy, submissive and competent as “nice”, while those who appeared untrustworthy, dominant and incompetent as being “mean”.
The second study manipulated faces so they were a bit more subtle and harder to read, but the children were still able to identify those they perceived as good or nice, and mean or bad.
In the third study, children were shown images of more extreme expressions and given pictures of “gifts” such as cookies, sweets, fruit, a chocolate, etc. They were introduced to the images by name and asked that if they were to give a gift, who would they give it to? In over 60% of the cases, the children offered the present to the more friendly looking personality.
Combined, the three studies identified faces with more positive traits as being nicer, more trustworthy and friendly. The study concluded that toddlers are discerning. They know who they like and don’t like, and gravitate to those they like based on how they look.
So, if you feel that your toddler is staring at a new person in your life intently, they are busy forming an opinion, good or bad.
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday.