Betty Repacholi

Studying how infants understand and use emotions in social interactions.

My research explores infants’ responses to, and understanding of, other people’s emotional expressions.  Before language develops, emotions are the primary means by which parent and child communicate.  Thus, it would not be surprising if preverbal infants had some basic understanding of other people’s emotional communications.  My research has indicated that this is indeed the case.  For instance, infants as young as 14 months of age understand that emotions are often “about” a particular event (e.g., someone is scared of a dog) and are very adept at identifying what in particular a person is emoting about.  In addition, by 18 months of age, infants begin to appreciate that two people can have a different emotional response about the exact same object (e.g., You like broccoli, but I dislike it).  On the other hand, 14-month-old infants are still highly egocentric and assume that everyone will have the same emotional responses to a particular object/event. 

More recently, I have investigated infants’ ability to engage in “emotional eavesdropping”.  In the course of their everyday lives, infants frequently “overhear” and “see” other people engaged in emotional exchanges.  For example, an infant might observe his mom scolding a sibling for throwing a baseball at a window.  What does the infant do later on when he has access to the ball?  One possibility is that he tosses the ball at the window.  After all, mom wasn’t angry at him, just his sibling.  On the other hand, it would be adaptive if the infant understood the personal relevance of this emotional information.  If he copies his sibling, mom might get angry at him as well.  In a series of studies, infants as young as 15 months of age were able to regulate their actions in response to an emotional communication that did not directly involve them.  Although infants learn important lessons from this emotional eavesdropping, they are also selective in how they use the information.  For example, in another set of studies, I found that infants were able to determine when the emotional information was irrelevant to their own situation and were then able to disregard it.    

Reading and responding to emotional signals during infancy may be an important foundation for later moral development and the child’s eventual internalization of parental/societal values.  If infants are unable to regulate their behavior in response to an external source of control (i.e., another person’s emotional signals), they may also experience difficulties later on with the internal regulation of their conduct.  Thus, I have also been examining whether infants’ responses to other people’s emotional communications is related to their behavior during the preschool period.  For instance, does it predict their later ability to comply with adult directions and requests?  In addition, I am exploring potential links to later emotion understanding, theory of mind (i.e.., mental state understanding), empathy, and executive function.

Related references:

Repacholi, B.M., Meltzoff, A.N., Rowe, H., & Toub, T.  (under revision).  “Infant control thyself: Infants’ Integration of Multiple Social Cues to Regulate Their Own Actions. 

Repacholi, B.M.  (2009). Linking actions and emotions: Evidence from 15- and 18-month-old infants. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27, 649-667.

Repacholi, B.M., Meltzoff, A.N., & Olsen, B.  (2008).  Infants’ understanding of the link between visual perception and emotion: “If she can’t see me doing it, she won’t get angry”.  Developmental Psychology, 44, 561-574. 

Repacholi, B.M., & Meltzoff, A.N. (2007).  Emotional eavesdropping:  Infants selectively respond to indirect emotional signals.  Child Development, 78, 503-521. 

Repacholi, B.M. (1998).  Infants’ use of attentional cues to identify the referent of another person’s emotional expression.  Developmental Psychology, 34, 1017-1025.

Repacholi, B.M., & Gopnik, A. (1997).  Early reasoning about desires: Evidence from 14- and 18-month-olds.  Developmental Psychology, 33, 12-21.