Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Systematic evidence of fake crying by a baby

Image: Tucia / Flickr
Crying is an important survival behaviour for babies - the world is informed that they are in distress and need prompt attention. Many parents also describe what looks like fake crying by their infants. It seems as though the child is pretending to be in distress merely as a way to get attention. Some people doubt that babies can really be capable of such deception, but now Hiroko Nakayama in Japan has published the results from six months' intensive study of crying by two babies, and she reports persuasive evidence of fake crying by one of them.

Nakayama filmed the babies in their homes for sixty minutes twice a month, for six months. The videos were then carefully coded by two researchers in five-second segments. Sixty-eight episodes of crying were documented for Baby R, aged 7 months at the study start; and 34 episodes for Baby M, aged 9 months at the study start.

The analysis focused on the presence of positive and negative affect (emotion) in the minutes and seconds prior to and after episodes of crying. All of Baby M's crying episodes were preceded by clear evidence of distress and negative affect, as betrayed by grimaces, vocalisations and downturned lips.

Just over 98 per cent of Baby R's crying episodes were also preceded by negative affect, but there was a single instance at 11 months where her crying immediately followed positive emotion (indicated by smiling or laughing), and then positive emotion abruptly followed the bout of crying. The mother recognised this behaviour as fake crying, and the emotional analysis appeared to confirm this. "Infant R appeared to cry deliberately to get her mother's attention," said Nakayama, "[then] she showed smile immediately after her mother came closer."

People might have a negative impression of "fake crying" said Nakayama, but they shouldn't do. It attracts the attention of the care-giver, and "such individual interaction contributes greatly not only to an infant's social development but also to their emotional development. Infants who are capable of fake crying might communicate successfully with their caregivers in this way on a daily basis. Fake crying could add much to their relationships."

Another insight from this research included the finding that most of the time the babies' crying was followed by continued negative affect. Positive affect only returned gradually with care-giver physical contact, or, in the case of Baby R, a combination of physical contact and eye contact.

It can only be speculation with such a small sample, but one possible reason for more frequent crying in Baby R, and her use of fake crying, is that she had two siblings, whereas Baby M was an only child. Baby R may therefore have needed to compete more for her mother's attention. "Siblings can enrich social interactions at home and increase their variety," said Nakayama. "Such environmental factors are known to stimulate the development of communication skills of infants."


Nakayama H (2013). Changes in the affect of infants before and after episodes of crying. Infant behavior & development, 36 (4), 507-12 PMID: 23732624

--further reading--
Does crying really make you feel better?
Differences in the way teen and adult mothers respond to baby cries
Why do children hide by covering their eyes?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Rachel said...

Just from the figures you cite here...
"Sixty-eight episodes of crying were documented for Baby R, ... Just over 98 per cent of Baby R's crying episodes were also preceded by negative affect, but there were a small number of instances where her crying immediately followed positive emotion"
So that small number would be one
"Infants who are capable of fake crying might communicate successfully with their caregivers in this way on a daily basis"
A daily basis? That seems to be overstating the incidence somewhat.

Adi said...

This does not take into account that a baby might have something that bothers the baby but that comes in quick bursts. My son has acid reflux and he regularly cries for short intervals but is happy and smiling seconds before and seconds after. It is not fake crying; it depends on when his stomach hurts him.

Anonymous said...

Edcellent point on the single incident. As for the daily basis--once in twelve hours *could* translate to daily. ;-)

Anonymous said...

In other news, science proves water is wet.

Unknown said...

Thanks Rachel - well spotted. I've corrected the text to refer to a single instance. The paper does in fact refer to multiple instances of "exceptional cases" where crying wasn't preceded by negative affect (i.e. indicative of fake crying), but I think that's possibly because the author wasn't always so strict about the positive affect needing to come immediately before crying, to count as a case of fake crying. Elsewhere in the paper, fake crying is also defined subjectively by the mothers rather than according to the coding of the videos, so that also adds to the lack of clarity.

Anonymous said...

The entire premise of this article is a strawman. Implying that a child is intentionally deceiving a parent for attention (as if they're somehow trying to trick the parent) is different than a child using crying as a mechanism for attention, a natural reflexive action with no thought or awareness of the action. Infants are not capable of acting intentionally toward others. They simply do not have the cognitive ability. They do not perceive at that age that there is a difference between themselves and their parents, so how can they deceive something that they don't even know exists?

Unknown said...

"They do not perceive at that age that there is a difference between themselves and their parents"
That is not true. Just at this age (7-9 months) infants begin to understand object permanence, the concept that something exists even when it cannot be seen. This is exactly the stage when you see more resistance to naps, being left at childcare, etc. They know Mom and Dad are still out there, and voice their desire to be close to parents.

Anonymous said...

It's not fake crying.. it's crying for attention. Babies only form of communication is crying. So when they are hungry they cry.. you give them food and they become happy. If they want their mamas and they cry and their mamas come they are happy. But they are not happy before they get the thing that they want so they cry out. That is completely normal. If they could whine they would... see any study of teenagers for more evidence on that!

Rachel said...

Usually when I spot something like this, I get to the end of the article and find you've got there before me!

Unknown said...

thanks - that makes me feel better!

Anonymous said...

Longitudinal research is needed to determine whether babies who exhibit this type of cry are disproportionately likely to become professional footballers.

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