Affect perception in infants

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Chapter 5 endnote 38, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Certainly infants feel pleasure and distress from birth, and affect-related concepts (pleasant/unpleasant) show up by three to four months of age.

The science of emotion is missing a systematic research focus on infants' (and children’s) emotion concepts and categories. As I explain in How Emotions are Made, "Many researchers, inspired by the classical view, have simply assumed that children’s emotion concepts are scaffolded onto an inborn or early-to-develop understanding of facial expressions." However, emotions have no fingerprints in the face and body, so this essentialist assumption is unlikely to be true. 

The most widely used method to study whether a very young infant can categorize emotional cues is a habituation paradigm. The infant is presented with a stimulus of a certain category (say, a scowling face) and the infant will look at it. As further stimuli are presented, if the infant categorizes them as part of the same category, looking time will decrease. Once looking time drops below a certain threshold, habituation is said to have been achieved. Then, a target stimulus is presented, and looking time is again recorded. If the looking time increases, then the infant has categorized the target stimulus as something different. 

Concepts for pleasant and unpleasant valence (affect) are fairly well developed in infancy:

  • Newborns can distinguish the difference between a happy and a posed fearful expression, although they cannot distinguish between fearful and neutral.[1] Probably, this means newborns can categorize happy vs. non happy faces.
  • By 3-4 months, infants can distinguish affect categories[2] and show evidence of having multimodal concepts for affect. There is no strong evidence that they have emotion concepts for anger, sadness, fear, etc. at that age. These emotion concepts appear to develop around three years of age. Faces do not dominate in these concepts — the concepts are multimodal from the beginning.[3]
  • Infants who are four to eight months old can distinguish smiling faces from scowling faces, but the distinction seems to be based on teeth rather than emotion.
  • Infants 5-7 months old seem to be able to categorize happy faces, and distinguish positive from negative faces, but not different negative faces from each other.[4]  These studies are usually done with posed faces, and not with multimodal stimuli that capitalize on statistical learning.
  • Nine- to 18-month-olds have learned the association between behaviors and preferences and intentions for happiness and sadness.[5][6][7][8]

See also

Notes on the Notes

  1. Farroni, Teresa, Enrica Menon, Silvia Rigato, and Mark H. Johnson. 2007. "The perception of facial expressions in newborns." European Journal of Developmental Psychology 4 (1): 2-13.
  2. Flom, Ross, and Lorraine E. Bahrick. 2007. "The development of infant discrimination of affect in multimodal and unimodal stimulation: The role of intersensory redundancy." Developmental Psychology 43 (1): 238-252.
  3. Walker-Andrews, Arlene S. 1997. "Infants' perception of expressive behaviors: differentiation of multimodal information." Psychological Bulletin 121 (3): 437-456.
  4. Leppänen, Jukka M., and Charles A. Nelson. 2006. "The development and neural bases of facial emotion recognition." Advances in Child Development and Behavior 34: 207-246.
  5. Barna, Joanne, and Maria Legerstee. 2005. "Nine-and twelve-month-old infants relate emotions to people's actions." Cognition & Emotion 19 (1): 53-67.
  6. Phillips, Ann T., Henry M. Wellman, and Elizabeth S. Spelke. 2002. "Infants' ability to connect gaze and emotional expression to intentional action." Cognition 85 (1): 53-78
  7. Repacholi, Betty M., and Alison Gopnik. 1997. "Early reasoning about desires: evidence from 14-and 18-month-olds." Developmental Psychology 33 (1): 12-21.
  8. Wellman, 1995 [full reference to be provided]