Young children world-wide understand that there are distinct types of facial expressions that each have different meanings (e.g. they understand that “sad” faces are different from “scared” faces). In this study, we want to find out whether children’s understanding of emotion changes with age and/or with different cultural backgrounds.
In this study, we show children (ages 3-9 years) different types of facial expressions. We ask children to pick out the faces that are Happy, Sad, Scared, Angry, and Surprised. For example, we ask them: “Do you see anybody who feels happy?” We want to know how American children classify these faces, and whether children in non-Western cultures (e.g. children in Palestine) have a different understanding of emotions.
So far we have found that young children clearly differentiate between positive and negative emotions (e.g. “feeling good” versus “feeling bad”). However, those children don’t yet understand subtle differences between similar expressions (e.g. “sad” versus “scared” faces). As they get older, children begin to understand that there are many types of facial expressions that all have different meanings. We’ve also found that Palestinian children have much broader concepts of emotion than American children. For example, Palestinians see fear in faces which express other negative emotions (e.g., sadness, anger, and disgust).
This research can help adults better understand how children from different cultures understand others’ emotions and how this understanding changes with age.
Learn about other research related to Children's Understanding of Emotion.
This research is conducted by the Emotion Development Lab at Boston College