Emotions are “contagious”, especially for babies (American Psychological Association, 2017; Waters, West, Karnilowicz, & Mendes, 2017). When mothers hold their babies, the mother’s affect is often “caught” by the baby. This emotional transmission can be seen when mothers are in a high-anxiety situation, the baby exhibits a sympathetic response; however, in low-stress scenarios, the baby demonstrates a parasympathetic response (Waters et al., 2017).
Past research has shown that mothers and fathers frequently respond differently to boy and girl babies (APA, 2017; Mascaro, Rentscher, Hackett, Mehl, & Rilling, 2017). Parents often talk more to girls yet restrict their behaviors, while boys are talked to less but allowed to engage in more risk-taking activities (e.g. climbing, “rough housing”). New research has taken another step and examined the neural functioning of fathers when with their children (Mascaro et al., 2017). When viewing pictures of their daughters smiling, fathers demonstrate a response in the orbitofrontal cortex, yet fathers experience the same response when viewing their sons exhibiting a neutral response (Mascaro et al., 2017). These neural responses suggest fathers have differing expectations for their children. Through the affect contagion scenario, it might be hypothesized that our babies are being primed early in how they express emotions. Girls are likely learning that an affective response is positive, while boys may be learning that a restricted range of emotions is desirable.
American Psychological Association. (2017). Parent-child interactions. Particularly Exciting Experiments in Psychology, 98. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/highlights/peeps/issue-98.aspx
Mascaro, J. S., Rentscher, K. E., Hackett, P. D., Mehl, M. R., & Rilling, J. K. (2017). Child gender influences paternal behavior, language, and brain function. Behavioral Neuroscience, 131(3), 262–273. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bne0000199
Waters, S. F., West, T. V., Karnilowicz, H. R., & Mendes, W. B. (2017). Affect contagion between mothers and infants: Examining valence and touch. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(7), 1043–1051. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000322
Michael Daniel, MA
WKPIC Doctoral Intern