The Pleasures and Annoyances of Babies:
Causes and Consequences
Lewis P. Lipsitt, Ph.D.
In his presentation to the First World Congress on Infant Psychiatry, Erikson spoke eloquently of his return to the nursery to observe very young babies after a long period of minimal contact. In his report of the experience, he said that he was struck by the "sensitivity of the little creatures" (Call et al., 1983, p. 425). As Erikson well knew, the term sensitivity has at least a double meaning and possibly multiple meanings. At the very least, human infants (even newborns) are capable of sensing their environments in all perceptual modalities. Beyond this basic biological capacity, inherent in all essentially normal infants from birth, infants reflect their "appreciation" of stimulation. They do this, first, by responding to it in a basically reflexive fashion, as in startling to a bright light or turning the head to the locus of a gentle sound. Second, they manifest qualitatively distinguishable signs of their pleasure or displeasure with the stimulation. Third, infants act to perpetuate satisfying states of affairs and to terminate those conditions of the environment which are annoying.
The human infant is born with the capacity, to a greater or lesser extent and unquestionably compromised in babies born at risk, for experiencing the pleasures and annoyances of sensation. These hedonic processes are mediated by physiological mechanisms which by now are fairly well understood. Nonetheless, we need to know much more about the necessary and sufficient stimulation for their activation, and the processes by which pleasure and annoyance alter subsequent adaptive behaviors of infants and thus lay the foundations for the enduring effects of early experience. This presentation provides some indication of the progress we have made in that direction in recent years.
Much of human activity is directed toward the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of annoyance. Pleasures and annoyances of sensation and of social interactions accompanying sensations are the principal catalysts for learning. Those responses that are followed by a satisfying state of affairs will tend to be repeated, while those that are not or are followed by annoyance will not be. This "law of effect" enunciated by E. L. Thorndike (1913) has to be regarded as the cornerstone of all learning-theory accounts of human behavior and personality development (Dollard and Miller, 1950).
For Freud, too, "the pleasure principle" was of paramount importance in early behavior and development, and the achievement of maturity