Museum of Science, Boston

Mismatched cues

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.

In this study, we show children (ages 3-5) a picture of either a happy, sad, or angry face. We then tell them a story involving the person in the picture. The person experiences an emotion in each story, but the information in the story does not match the emotion that children saw in the picture. For example, children may see a happy face, but hear a story like this one: “One day, my friend was in her room, and she looked like this. She had tears in her eyes. She wanted a hug.” We then ask children, “How does she feel?”

We are interested to see whether children will base their responses on the person’s facial expression, or on the information in the story.

This research will help us understand how children recognize and understand what others are feeling in real life situations.

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

Protecting the nest

Imagine you are a robin, taking care of your hatchlings. All of a sudden, you see a hawk flying overhead! What would you do? Would you show your hatchlings if you were afraid, or would you hide it and try to look brave?

Try it at Home

Detecting emotions

You can often recognize people’s emotions from their facial expressions – a smile, a frown, a furrowed brow or a pout. How else could you tell what people are feeling? Do any other parts of their body give it away? What other senses could you use?

True feelings

Have you ever tried to hide your emotions, or showed a different emotion from what you were really feeling? Are there some situations when this would be a good idea to do? Can you tell when others are trying to mask their true feelings? How?