NEW YORK - Never underestimate toddlers.
Even at the tender age of 18 months they are able to observe adults and use the emotional reactions they see to shape their own behavior, according to a new study.
Researchers describe it as "emotional eavesdropping" -- watching and listening to people to understand emotional dynamics.
"This may be a precursor to 'reading' other people's minds by understanding their emotional and psychological states," said Betty Repacholi, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington.
She and her colleague Andrew Meltzoff said their findings, which are published in the journal of Child Development, show how sensitive toddlers are to the interactions of adults.
"They don't need to try out a behavior of their own and get rewarded or punished, they can watch what an older brother or sister does and learn from what happens to them," said Meltzoff, who is co-director of the university's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.
"This study helps fill in a missing piece, because it shows the children engage in 'emotional eavesdropping.' Children have their emotional antenna up all the time and they learn from eavesdropping on the behaviors of others," he added in a statement.
The researchers observed how babies reacted as they watched as one adult played with a toy and a second person expressed anger or a neutral reaction.
In one experiment the 96 toddlers were allowed to play with the toy and imitate what the first adult had been doing after the second adult had left the room, or had remained and looked at the child with a neutral expression.
In another test 72 babies played with the toy while the second adult either turned her back on the child, looked at the toddler or pretended to read a magazine.
All the children were interested in what the first adult had been doing and imitated the actions most of the time. But if the second adult remained in the room, it took the toddlers longer to take the toy and they were not as successful in imitating the action of the first adult.
Both boys and girls reacted in the same way.
The researchers said the study shows children modify their behavior in response to emotional communications that do not involve them. They learn important lessons from observing others.
"Infants can use emotional eavesdropping to avoid some of the negative consequences that might arise were they to perform an action themselves. It is also a pretty adaptive way of interpreting what is important and what they can get away with," Repacholi added.