One- to Four-year-olds’ Ability to Connect Diverse Positive Emotional Expressions to Their Probable Causes

TitleOne- to Four-year-olds’ Ability to Connect Diverse Positive Emotional Expressions to Their Probable Causes
Publication TypeConference Poster
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsWu, Y, Muentener, P, Schulz, L
Conference NameSociety for Research in Child Development
Publication LanguageEnglish

Adults have a sophisticated understanding of emotions; sufficiently sophisticated that English-speakers appreciate the distinction between feeling airy and animated, and terror and horror.  To the degree that we make these distinctions, we represent not only the meaning of these emotion words, but also the causes and contexts that elicit them and the expressions and vocalizations that accompany them. The current study investigates how this rich understanding develops in childhood.

Previous research has found that infants can distinguish diverse emotional expressions and match emotional faces with their voices (e.g., Field, et al., 1982; Soderstrom, et al., 2015; Soken & Pick, 1999; Walker-Andrews, 1997). They also represent positive and negative emotions in terms of their external causes and internal mental states (e.g., desires). For example, ten-month-olds refer to their parents’ facial expressions (i.e., positive or negative) in response to ambiguous stimuli (e.g., Klinnert, 1984; Moses, et al., 2001; Sorce, et al., 1985; Walden & Ogan, 1988). They also expect an agent to feel positive rather than negative when she achieves her goal (Skerry & Spelke, 2014). By eighteen months, toddlers can recover someone’s likes and dislikes from her vocalizations (“Yummy” or “Yucky”) together with her emotional response (Repacholi & Gopnik, 1997). However, little evidence has found that infants and toddlers can make distinctive causal inferences from within-valence emotions. Some researchers have thus proposed that a relatively fine-grained understanding of emotion emerges only gradually after two years old (e.g., Bormann-Kischkel, et al., 1990; Bullock & Russell, 1984; 1985; 1986; Russell & Widen, 2002; Widen & Russell, 2003; 2008; 2010).

In our study, we investigate such fine-grained understanding by looking at young children’s ability to map diverse within-valence emotional expressions with their probable causes. We started with testing two- to four-year-olds (Experiment 1). Using a forced-choice task, children successfully identified the causes of positive vocal expressions elicited by exciting, delicious, adorable, funny, and sympathetic events (Figure 1; two-year-olds: M=.60, t(15)=2.745, p=.015; three-year-olds: M=.68, t(15)=3.637, p=.002; four-year-olds: M=.90, t(15)=29.589, p<.001). Using the same materials, similar results obtained in a preferential looking paradigm with 18-23-month-olds (Figure 2; the effect of Time: F(6, 490) = 6.55, p < .001 for the initial sample and F(6, 527) = 6.96, p < .001 for the replication). No effect of emotion categories throughout. In Experiment 3, we used a manual search paradigm with 12-17-month-olds. During the experiment, the experimenter looked into a box and made an emotional vocalization (i.e., either “Aww…” indicating something cute, or “Mmm…” indicating something delicious). We found a trend suggesting that 12-17-month-olds searched longer in the box when they found a toy incongruent with the vocalization (i.e., hearing “Aww” and finding a banana, or hearing “Mmm” and finding a stuffed animal) than when they found one congruent (i.e., hearing “Aww” and finding a stuffed animal, or hearing “Mmm” and finding a banana; T=18.89, p=.083; permutation test). A pre-registered replication found similar results (T=35.35, p=.053). These results suggest that infants have the emerging ability to discriminate within-valence emotional expressions and infer their probable causes.

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