Quantification of Everything: Temper Tantrums

I’ve been having trouble finding entries for my hoped-for series of posts on the quantification of everything. Thankfully, today’s link round-ups brought in a fantastic example: the science of toddler temper tantrums (via NPR).

Apparently, the trick to creating a science of temper tantrums, as with so many things, is getting good data. But how do you get good data from respondents who can’t always produce full sentences and don’t sit still? You mic their onesie!

The first challenge was to collect tantrum sounds, says co-author James A. Green of the University of Connecticut.

“We developed a onesie that toddlers can wear that has a high-quality wireless microphone sewn into it,” Green said. “Parents put this onesie on the child and press a go button.”

The wireless microphone fed into a recorder that ran for several hours. If the toddler had a meltdown during that period, the researchers obtained a high-quality audio recording. Over time, Green and Potegal said they collected more than a hundred tantrums in high-fidelity audio.

From this dataset of toddler tantrum noises, researchers came up with a theory of tantrums and suggestions for parents about how to respond to toddlers (see the article for details). As a non-parent, I can’t say how helpful these suggestions would be or how they accord with conventional wisdom. But I think this is a great example of the growing quantification of everything:

“We have the most quantitative theory of tantrums that has ever been developed in the history of humankind,” said study co-author Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota, half in jest and half seriously.

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