Infants prefer positive over negative voices, but it wasn't known if this information affects their social preferences. The ability to evaluate people's actions and intentions is an important skill.
Researchers at the University of Toronto studied babies, and their findings suggest that very young children make judgments about people based on the tone of their voice.
This study involved 20 children from 10.5 to 11.5 months old. In one experiment, they watched four puppets take turns uttering neutral statements such as "Let me tie your shoe" in male and female voices with a happy or irritated tone. After several repetitions of the exercise, the children could choose a puppet for themselves. They selected the happy or nice puppet an average of 67% of the time, the analysis showed.
The second experiment was identical to the first, using happy or irritated voices, but this time the objects were drinking cups that lacked facial features. Earlier, infants' visual orientation controlled how long they heard the neutral versions of each voice.
Here, infants listened longer to the neutral voice of the formerly positive speaker. That is, just as in the first experiment, infants' preferences for the emotionally neutral test stimuli were shaped by their earlier exposure to emotionally charged recordings of that voice.
The findings provide evidence suggesting that infants possess sophisticated social evaluation abilities, preferring to interact with prosocial over antisocial others.The children selected the cup associated with the happy voice almost half the time, indicating tone of voice had no effect on their preference for an inanimate object, the study suggests.
In a final experiment, the children heard the same voices from the first two experiments, but this time speaking in a neutral tone. Still, 69% of the children preferred the formerly positive voice over the formerly negative one. This suggests they retained information about the speaker's tone and could use it to guide future encounters with that person. The babies showed no preference for male or female speakers in the experiments.
The research was published in the journal Infancy.