Museum of Science, Boston

Children's Understanding of Emotion

We interpret others’ emotions from their faces, voices, words, and actions. Some cognitive scientists want to learn more about how children come to understand emotions and their meanings.

Current Research

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Can you read someone's mind from their face?

When you look at another person’s face, what kinds of feelings can you see? In this study, we explore how many different feelings people can see in others’ facial expressions.

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How do children learn to recognize new facial expressions?

Throughout their development, children must learn to recognize many different facial expressions. In addition, they have to learn labels for them (like, “happy”, “sad”, and “afraid”). Researchers still don’t know exactly how children learn to recognize and label all the different expressions that they see. In this study, we examine how children ages 2-4 years recognize new expressions they have never seen before.

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How do children recognize sadness and anger?

For adults, sadness and anger are two different emotions. This study investigates children's understanding of the differences between sadness and anger.

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How do children tell what others are feeling?

Sometimes people may use facial expressions that mask how they are really feeling about a situation. For example, people sometimes “put on a smile,” even if they are actually feeling angry or sad. In this study, we are interested in finding out more about how children handle this conflicting information.

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What do children think is disgusting?

Many different objects and situations can be classified as “disgusting” by adults, but do children think the same kinds of things are disgusting? The purpose of this study is to investigate children’s beliefs about what causes disgust and other emotions.

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What do young children think is scary?

Research suggests that children often find fantasy creatures (e.g., monsters and ghosts) scary before they find real things (e.g., snakes, mean dogs) scary. In this study, we want to know whether children pay more attention to whether the animal is real or pretend, or whether the animal’s behavior can be controlled. In our lab, we’re also interested in finding out whether children's understanding of fear is similar across different cultures.

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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.

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When is it okay to show how you feel?

Young children understand that feeling a certain way (e.g. angry) sometimes makes you behave in a certain way (e.g. stomp your feet and yell). This study asks: when do children begin to understand the social rules that govern the expression of emotion, such as the different contexts (home versus public places) in which it is “ok” or “not ok” to express your emotions?

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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.