Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are common in infants and toddlers, and apparently for some adult members of Congress.  All parents deal with infant crying on a daily, if not hourly basis, and develop strategies to cope with it.  Ranging from complete disregard, to instantaneous attention and solicitation, parents attempt to deal with infant crying.  It is easy to minimize infant temper tantrums and crying as simply infants’ attempts to get their way, but there is more to it than meets the ear and eye.

Consider for a moment that evolution has shaped infant crying and temper tantrums just as other aspects of our anatomy and behavior.  It is easy to see that children are behaving in a way that is in their best interest and are trying to extract resources from parents or caregivers.  Children use crying as a way of signaling that they need attention, whether it is hunger, a wet diaper, or gas.  It is an evolved human behavior and it works.

While evolution and natural selection have favored infant crying under certain circumstances, it has also favored parents that were responsive to crying.  Now here is the rub.  Infants ought to want to extract as many resources from parents as possible because that will enhance their survival, and parents should acquiesce to a point.  Clearly, parents want to produce healthy infants that survive and reproduce so that they can become grandparents, but simultaneously parents want invest no more in a single offspring than is necessary for survival and reproduction.  This means that parents will provide food, protection, and comforting to infants so long as their investment of resources produces enhanced survivorship and reproduction for offspring.  During this period, both parents and infants agree on resource allocation.

Parents should stop investing in offspring when their investment will no longer produce measurable results in offspring survival and reproduction.  At this point parental resources would be better used in producing another child, or in taking care of their grandchildren.  For human infants today that means that parents continue to provide resources until children are adults.

Natural selection favored offspring that secure any advantage they can, particularly during critical periods of development, when small investments may pay huge dividends in the long run.  Therefore, offspring will also employ “dishonest” or exaggerated signals of need.  There are evolutionary constraints on infants on the use of dishonest signals because infants share a portion of their genetic material with their siblings, so it is not in their best interest to be so selfish that you increase sibling mortality. Nor should infants be favored that exhaust parents completely if you are dependent on them for survival.  Therefore, infants employ both “honest” and “deceptive” signals and parents employ crying “polygraphs” all the time.

We know that infant crying works, in part due to natural selection favoring the acoustic properties of those cries.  Imagine you are in a public place and you hear an infant crying.  It is not a soothing and calming sound.  Natural selection has favored the acoustic properties of crying that are maximally arousing/irritating to adults.  Typically, most adults will attend to infant crying and secretly wish that caregivers would do something to console the infant.  The point is that it is difficult to ignore, for good reason.

Parents often say that they can assess the emotional and physical state of their infant by the type of cry emitted, its duration, and tone.  While the ability to differentiate different types of cries is a potentially important parenting skill and was favored by natural selection over the course of human history, it is important to note that infant crying is evolutionarily designed to be maximally uncomfortable for adults.  Parents steel themselves against infant attempts to gain immediate attention that may not reflect serious underlying biological or psychological difficulty, but it is difficult for a passerby to be cavalier about a crying infant.  Therefore, with infant crying and escalation to temper tantrums, natural selection has favored a behavioral mechanism that allows infants to manipulate parents.  Parents have also been selected to be responsive to infant crying, even to infants to whom they are not related.  It is important to remember that natural selection has favored crying in infants and toddlers as a way ensuring that their needs are met and simultaneously favored parents that were appropriately responsive to those infant cries.  Parents should respond to “honest” infant crying and quickly develop the ability to distinguish those cries from “dishonest” ones.

It is unclear at this point how the members of Congress will deal with persistent cases of temper tantrums and infant crying.  Differentiating between “honest” and “dishonest” cries may be an important skill for members of Congress.  Only time will tell in the resolution of drama that is acting out today in Washington if honest cries will be heard.

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EO Smith

Interests include biological anthropology, evolution, social behavior, and human behavior. Conducted field research in the Tana River National Primate Reserve, Kenya and on Angaur, Palau, Micronesia, as well as research with captive nonhuman primates at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the Institute for Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya.
EO Smith
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