Emotion concepts in children

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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:

Some of the evidence comes from careful testing of children in the lab, which suggests that they don’t develop adult-like emotion concepts like “Anger,” “Sadness,” and “Fear” until around age three. [...] The psychologists James A. Russell and Sherri C. Widen have a long program of research on children’s emotion concepts.

A program of research from the psychologist James Russell (creator of the affective circumplex in chapter 4), and his colleague (and former student) Sherri Widen, found that toddlers start off with broad affective categories, “feels good” and “feels bad.” These categories begin to narrow around age two, until they take on the structure of adult-like categories for anger, sadness, fear, happiness, disgust, and so on in middle school.

Restated in terms of emotional granularity (chapter 1), children start off low in granularity for their emotion concepts and then progressively become more granular. Russell and Widen found that two-year-olds from the U.S. and Canada use the emotion words "sad" and "mad" interchangeably. They also use these words to refer to other unpleasant emotions like disgust and fear. By age three, they are using the word anger “correctly” most of the time (i.e., in a way that agrees with the cultural stereotype for anger). By age four, they’re using sad “correctly” most of the time, fear and surprise are used “correctly” less than half of the time, and disgust around 10% of the time. Surprise reaches 80% around age six, and fear and disgust are still in the 50-65% range at age nine.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8]

There is no solid evidence that newborns and babies have emotion concepts, despite claims to the contrary. Most studies that test an infant’s ability to perceive emotion actually only compare their understanding of "pleasant" vs. "unpleasant" because they fail to include the proper controls. For example, studies might compare whether babies understand the differences between a smiling face vs. a fear face, and then claim that this is evidence that infants have concepts for happiness and fear, but these faces can be distinguished on the basis of valence alone (which is an affective property). One study found evidence that seven-month-olds can distinguish between two unpleasant emotion categories, sadness and anger, but this could be distinguishing arousal rather than emotions per se.[9]


Notes on the Notes

  1. Russell, James A., and Sherri C. Widen. 2002. "A label superiority effect in children's categorization of facial expressions." Social Development 11 (1): 30-52.
  2. Widen, Sherri C., and James A. Russell. 2003. "A closer look at preschoolers' freely produced labels for facial expressions." Developmental psychology 39 (1): 114-128.
  3. Widen, Sherri C., and James A. Russell. 2008. "Children acquire emotion categories gradually." Cognitive Development 23 (2): 291-312.
  4. Widen, Sherri C., and James A. Russell. 2008. "Young children’s understanding of other’s emotions." In Handbook of Emotions, 3rd edition, edited by Michael Lewis, Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones, and Lisa Feldman Barrett, 348-363. New York: Guilford Press.
  5. Widen, Sherri C., and James A. Russell. 2010. "Children's scripts for social emotions: Causes and consequences are more central than are facial expressions." British Journal of Developmental Psychology 28 (3): 565-581.
  6. Widen, Sherri C., and James A. Russell. 2010. "Differentiation in preschooler's categories of emotion." Emotion 10 (5): 651-661.
  7. Widen, Sherri C., and James A. Russell. 2010. "The “disgust face” conveys anger to children." Emotion 10 (4): 455-466.
  8. Widen, Sherri C., and James A. Russell. 2013. "Children's recognition of disgust in others." Psychological Bulletin 139 (2): 271-299.
  9. Soken, Nelson H., and Anne D. Pick. 1999. "Infants' perception of dynamic affective expressions: Do infants distinguish specific expressions?" Child Development 70 (6): 1275-1282.