When Do Babies Learn Self-Control?

A new study looks at when kids are able to use social cues to regulate their behavior.

Last year’s season of Sesame Street was a rough one for Cookie Monster.

For its 44th year, the show dedicated itself to teaching its young viewers about executive functioning, an umbrella term for cognitive skills like attention to detail, strategizing, and other mental processes that connect past experiences to present decision-making—including self-control, an idea easily demonstrated by making a junk-food junkie wait for his sugar fix.

And wait he did. In a recurring segment called “Cookie’s Crumby Pictures,” the show’s writers spoofed the plots of made-for-adult movies to create sketches with names like “The Hungry Games” and “The Spy Who Loved Cookies,” each featuring some outlandish reason why the chronically hungry Muppet had to hold on before chowing down.

The target audience of Sesame Street skews toward preschoolers—the show is geared toward kids between the ages of three and five—but new research suggests that children may have a handle on executive functioning, including the concept of self-control, much earlier than previously thought.

In a study of 150 15-month-olds recently published in the journal Cognitive Development, babies watched as an adult demonstrated how to use different noise-making toys, like a box with a buzzer and a set of plastic beads that could be dropped into a cup. The demonstration was then repeated as a second adult (referred to in the study as “the emoter”) came in the room and angrily berated the first one for making too much noise. Afterwards, the babies had a chance to play with the toys; in half of the cases, the angry adult either left the room or turned away from the babies, and in the other half stood facing them with a neutral expression.

Babies in the former group reached for the toys without hesitation, but under the gaze of the formerly angry adult, the majority of those in the latter group waited a few seconds, on average, before picking them up. When they did, they were less likely to play with them in the same way as they had been shown, indicating that they were adjusting (or at least trying to adjust) their actions in order to avoid becoming the target of the emoter’s wrath.

“They want to pick up the object, they want to imitate the interesting act that the adult is doing. That’s what their impulses are telling them to do. But if they can use executive function to regulate their emotional behavior, they can resist that impulse,” said study co-author Andrew Meltzoff, a psychology professor at the University of Washington and co-director of its Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.

While the ability to recognize emotions can develop as early as four months of age, past research has tended to focus on emotions directed at the babies themselves, rather than on their ability to successfully read exchanges between others, or what Meltzoff terms “emotional eavesdropping.” But in this case, he says, the majority of the babies were able to successfully apply what they learned through such eavesdropping (making noise with the toys made the adult angry) to their own situations (if they did it, the adult would yell at them, too).

“Nobody was angry at them. The emoter was angry at the other adult, and the baby is having a very sophisticated social calculation,” Meltzoff says, adding that the study runs contrary to common wisdom that executive functioning may be largely contingent on language abilities. “Even though the babies can’t talk to you and can’t use words to describe the event, they’re watching this social emotional interaction and they’re sort of calculating the right thing to do in this setting … They have this very rich mental life about emotions, even though they’re too young to talk about it.”

Now that the original subjects from the study are now all preschool-aged, Meltzoff and his colleagues plan to follow up with them to assess how their self-control abilities as young children relate to what they demonstrated as babies.

“We’re predicting that we’ll find a relationship between what they do at 15 months and five years,” he says, and “preliminary data is suggesting that that’s the case.” No word on how that might shake out at 44 years, but for the curious, the hungry blue Muppet struggling through “Life of Whoopie Pie” might offer a couple clues.