Museum of Science, Boston

Emotion Recognition

How many ways can children recognize emotions?

Emotions can be conveyed by facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Children are quick to discover that faces convey emotion, but do they notice when people express emotions using only their bodies or voices? What if the face and body portray different emotions? Which cue will children use? This study examines how children (age 2-7) use faces, postures, and voices to determine others’ feelings.

In our studies, children see pictures or videos on a computer screen of an actress expressing various feelings. Sometimes only her face is shown, sometimes only her body posture is shown, and sometimes only her voice is heard. After each picture or video, we ask children to guess what the person in the video was feeling. In other computer games, the actress’s face and body express different emotions (e.g., she may be smiling, but her posture shows that she is afraid of something). We ask children to decide what she is feeling, and we want to know whether they will choose the emotion expressed in her face or her body language to make their decision.

Our results so far show that children are usually able to guess what a person is feeling based on their facial expressions or body postures. However, up until age 7, they have a much harder time guessing emotions from voices alone.

This study will help us understand how children recognize others’ emotions, and how emotions can be effectively communicated to children.

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

Masked emotions

Use one of the animal masks in the Children’s Gallery to hide your face. How can you express different emotions using only your body language? Can your friends or family guess what feeling you are expressing? What gestures or postures look happy? Which look sad?

Moving like an animal

Use the costumes in the Discovery Center to dress up like an animal. Try being a robin, a tiger, or a bear. Can these animals also express emotions? What kind of body language would each animal use to show that it was happy, angry, or afraid?

Try it at Home

Exploring tone of voice

Talk to someone using a walkie-talkie or a telephone, and try to act out different emotions using only your voice. How do you change your voice to express each different feeling? Which emotions are easier for your partner to recognize? Which are harder?