When do kids start to care about other people’s opinions? | Sara Valencia Botto


I’d like you to take a moment and consider what
you are wearing right now. I have a deep, philosophical
question for you. Why are we not all wearing
comfortable pajamas right now? (Laughter) Well, I’m a psychologist
and not a mind reader, although many people think
that’s the same thing. I can bet you that your response
is somewhere along the lines of, “I’m expected to not wear pj’s in public” or “I don’t want people
to think I am a slob.” Either way, the fact that we all
chose to wear business casual clothing, as opposed to our favorite
pair of sweatpants, is not a silly coincidence. Instead, it reveals two
defining human characteristics. The first is that we are cognizant
of what other people value, like what they will approve
or disapprove of, such as not wearing pj’s
to these sorts of settings. And two, we’ve readily used
this information to guide our behavior. Unlike many other species, humans are prone to tailor their behavior
in the presence of others to garner approval. We spend valuable time putting on make up, choosing the right picture
and Instagram filter, and composing ideas
that will undoubtedly change the world in 140 characters or less. Clearly, our concern
with how other people will evaluate us is a big part of being human. Despite this being
a big human trait, however, we know relatively little
about when and how we come to care
about the opinion of others. Now, this is a big question
that requires many studies. But the first step
to uncovering this question is to investigate when in development we become sensitive
to others’ evaluations. I have spent the past four years
at Emory University investigating how an infant, who has no problem walking
around the grocery store in her onesie, develops into an adult
that fears public speaking for fear of being negatively judged. (Laughter) Now, this is usually a point
when people ask me, “How do you investigate
this question, exactly? Infants can’t talk, right?” Well, if my husband
were up here right now, he would tell you that I interview babies, because he would rather not say
that his wife experiments on children. (Laughter) In reality, I design
experiments for children, usually in the form of games. Developmental psychologist
Dr. Philippe Rochat and I designed a “game” called “The Robot Task” to explore when children
would begin to be sensitive to the evaluation of others. Specifically, the robot task
captures when children, like adults, strategically modify their behavior
when others are watching. To do this, we showed
14 to 24-month-old infants how to activate a toy robot, and importantly, we either
assigned a positive value, saying “Wow, isn’t that great!” or a negative value, saying,
“Oh, oh. Oops, oh no,” after pressing the remote. Following this toy demonstration, we invited the infants
to play with the remote, and then either watched them or turned around and pretended
to read a magazine. The idea was that if by 24 months, children are indeed sensitive
to the evaluation of others, then their button-pressing behavior
should be influenced not only by whether or not
they’re being watched but also by the values
that the experimenter expressed towards pressing the remote. So for example, we would expect children to play with
the positive remote significantly more if they were being observed but then choose to explore
the negative remote once no one was watching. To really capture this phenomenon,
we did three variations of the study. Study one explored how infants
would engage with a novel toy if there were no values
or instructions provided. So we simply showed infants
how to activate the toy robot, but didn’t assign any values, and we also didn’t tell them
that they could play with the remote, providing them with a really
ambiguous situation. In study two, we incorporated the two values,
a positive and a negative. And in the last study,
we had two experimenters and one remote. One experimenter expressed a negative
value towards pressing the remote, saying, “Yuck, the toy moved,” while the other experimenter
expressed a positive value, saying, “Yay, the toy moved.” And this is how the children reacted
to these three different scenarios. So in study one, the ambiguous situation, I’m currently watching the child. She doesn’t seem to be too interested
in pressing the remote. Once I turned around — now she’s ready to play. (Laughter) Currently, I’m not watching the child. She’s really focused. I turn around. (Laughter) She wasn’t doing anything, right? In study two, it’s the two remotes, one with the positive
and one with the negative value. I’m currently observing the child. And the orange remote
is a negative remote. She’s just looking around,
looking at me, hanging out. Then I turn around … (Laughter) That’s what she’s going for. I’m not watching the child. He wants the mom to play with it, right? Take a safer route. I turn around … (Laughter) He wasn’t doing anything, either. Yeah, he feels awkward. (Laughter) Everyone knows
that side-eyed glance, right? Study three, the two
experimenters, one remote. The experimenter that reacted negatively
towards pressing the remote is watching the child right now. She feels a little awkward,
doesn’t know what to do, relying on Mom. And then, she’s going to turn around so that the experimenter that expressed
a positive response is watching. Coast is clear — now she’s ready to play. (Laughter) So, as the data suggests, we found that children’s
button-pressing behavior was indeed influenced by the values
and the instructions of the experimenter. Because in study one,
children did not know what would be positively
or negatively evaluated, they tended to take the safest route and wait until I turned my back
to press the remote. Children in study two chose to press the positive remote
significantly more when I was watching, but then once I turned my back, they immediately took the negative remote
and started playing with it. Importantly, in a control study, where we removed
the different values of the remotes — so we simply said, “Oh, wow”
after pressing either of the remotes — children’s button-pressing behavior
no longer differed across conditions, suggesting that it was really
the values that we gave the two remotes that drove the behavior
in the previous study. Last but not least, children in study three chose to press
a remote significantly more when the experimenter that expressed
a positive value was watching, as opposed to the experimenter
that had expressed a negative value. Not coincidentally, it is also around this age
that children begin to show embarrassment in situations that might elicit
a negative evaluation, such as looking
at themselves in the mirror and noticing a mark on their nose. The equivalent of finding spinach
in your teeth, for adults. (Laughter) So what can we say,
based on these findings? Besides the fact that babies
are actually really, really sneaky. (Laughter) From very early on, children, like adults, are sensitive to the values
that we place on objects and behaviors. And importantly, they use these values
to guide their behavior. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re constantly communicating values
to those around us. Now, I don’t mean values like
“be kind” or “don’t steal,” although those are certainly values. I mean that we are constantly
showing others, specifically our children, what is likeable, valuable
and praiseworthy, and what is not. And a lot of the times, we actually do this
without even noticing it. Psychologists study behavior
to explore the contents of the mind, because our behavior
often reflects our beliefs, our values and our desires. Here in Atlanta,
we all believe the same thing. That Coke is better than Pepsi. (Applause) Now, this might have to do with the fact
that Coke was invented in Atlanta. But regardless, this belief is expressed in the fact
that most people will chose to drink Coke. In the same way, we are communicating a value when we mostly complement girls for their pretty hair
or their pretty dress, but boys, for their intelligence. Or when we chose to offer candy,
as opposed to nutritious food, as a reward for good behavior. Adults and children
are incredibly effective at picking up values
from these subtle behaviors. And in turn, this ends up
shaping their own behavior. The research I have shared with you today suggests that this ability
emerges very early in development, before we can even utter
a complete sentence or are even potty-trained. And it becomes an integral part
of who we grow up to be. So before I go, I’d like to invite you
to contemplate on the values that we broadcast
in day-to-day interactions, and how these values might be shaping
the behavior of those around you. For example, what value
is being broadcasted when we spend more time
smiling at our phone than smiling with other people? Likewise, consider how your own behavior
has been shaped by those around you, in ways you might not
have considered before. To go back to our simple illustration, do you really prefer Coke over Pepsi? Or was this preference simply driven
by what others around you valued? Parents and teachers
certainly have the privilege to shape children’s behavior. But it is important to remember that through the values we convey
in simple day-to-day interactions, we all have the power to shape
the behavior of those around us. Thank you. (Applause)

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