Emory Report
May 4, 2009
Volume 61, Number 30


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May 4
, 2009
Blushing babies and the reasons why we become self-conscious

By Carol Clark

Put on some music and invite a rambunctious 2-year-old to dance, and you’ll likely get an unabashed show. But an intriguing transition occurs between the ages of 2 and 3, says Philippe Rochat, professor of psychology. Three-year-olds are more likely to hesitate before moving to the music. They may refuse and seek refuge in the bosom of their mothers. Those who dance may blush — especially if someone laughs at the performance.

“The fear of social rejection is the mother of all fears,” Rochat says. “It’s a very powerful phenomenon — I think it’s probably even stronger than the drive for sex. It helps define us as a species, and it cuts across all cultures.”

Rochat’s latest book, “Others in Mind: The Origins of Self-Consciousness,” was recently published by Cambridge University Press. He drew on nearly two decades of research into infant and child developmental psychology to write the book, which integrates scientific findings with his personal intuition about why we behave the way we do.

“This book is about how we become this species that is essentially preoccupied by how others see us, and how we have evolved this propensity to manipulate how others see us,” Rochat says. “The worst thing that can happen is to have a feeling of being transparent — ‘The Invisible Man.’”

The need for affiliation has long been recognized as an inherent human trait. Rochat argues that this basic affiliation need fuels a fear of rejection and a struggle for recognition that is central to cognitive psychology. This emphasis “gives a subtly different perspective on human nature,” Rochat says, adding that it helps explain everything from the common phobia of public speaking to the Facebook fad.

Rochat is also the author of “The Infant’s World,” published in 2001, which explores what babies know, and how they come to understand what’s happening around them. While both books draw from research on infants and children, they are really about the adult mind.

“Our own nature is revealed by a child,” Rochat says. “We can’t fully understand the adult mind if we don’t understand the root of this irrepressible drive to manipulate how people see us. It’s something that emerges at about age 3 and keeps growing and defining who we are as a species.”