London - Children as young as three can tell if someone is whingeing, according to a new study.

It found they will only respond with sympathy when it is truly deserved – checking if an incident warrants distress before becoming concerned.

The research provides the first evidence that three-year-olds can work out what is happening in a situation before responding with sympathy, rather than doing so automatically, scientists say.

A total of 48 toddlers – evenly split between boys and girls, aged 36 to 49 months – had their reactions recorded when they witnessed an adult acting upset.

Their reactions to the adults were assessed in three situations – when the distress was justified, unjustified and when the cause of the distress was unknown.

Two adults met with each child and engaged in various situations in which one of the adults would display distress by frowning, whimpering or pouting following incidents of apparent physical harm, material loss or unfairness.

The situations included one adult dropping a toy box lid on another’s hand or one adult getting a shirt sleeve snagged on the toy box lid.

Another included an adult finding three extra marbles and not sharing them or sharing six marbles equally and one adult demonstrating the use of scissors to another adult or destroying the other one’s drawing by cutting it in half.

Children who saw the adult being upset due to a real harm or injustice showed concern, intervened on their behalf and checked on them when they later expressed distress out of their view, the American Psychological Association study revealed.

When the adult was out of sight but could be heard voicing distress, the children’s expressions indicated that they were ‘checking’ to see if the incident warranted it, the study found.

In further tests, an adult was given one helium balloon and a child was given two, but when the adult 'accidentally' let their one go and became upset, the kid offered their balloon more quickly if they had already seen the adult distressed because of true harm.

Robert Hepach, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said: “These very young children really considered what was happening in a given situation rather than automatically responding with sympathy to another person apparently in distress.

“In most instances, they identified unfounded distress and they responded in a manner appropriate for the specific situation.”

“The study provides the first evidence that three-year-olds can evaluate just how reasonable another person’s distressed reaction is to a particular incident or situation, and this influences whether they are concerned enough to try to do something to help.” - Daily Mail