Museum of Science, Boston

Emotion Concepts

How do children interpret facial expressions?

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

Try it at the Museum

Social referencing

Try out the social referencing activities in the Infant Area. Look inside one “mystery bag” and pretend to be happy. Then look inside another bag, and pretend to be afraid or disgusted.

Did your child notice your expressions? How did s/he react to them? Which bag does your child choose to play with, if given the choice?

Try it at Home

Acting out emotions

When reading a story to your child, try acting out the reactions of different characters as you read.

How does your child show that a character is angry, sad, or afraid? How does your child show that someone is surprised or happy?

Does your child use different facial expressions for each type of emotion, or are they all similar? Does your child seem to differentiate between emotions in other ways, like using their voice or body language?