Museum of Science, Boston

Sad seeds

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.

In one part of this study, we show children (ages 2-3) photographs of different facial expressions, including some faces that are expressing Anger, Sadness, Happiness, or other emotions. Then we ask them what emotion they see: For example, “Is the person sad?”, or “Are they angry?” In another part of the study, we tell children brief stories about events that are associated with different emotions. For example, children may hear a story like: “Alice wanted to play outside but it was raining.” The stories might describe either events that could cause particular emotions (e.g., not being able to play outside), or behaviors that are consequences of those emotions (e.g., crying or yelling). After each story, some children will be asked if the person in the story is sad; others will be asked if she is angry. We want to know if it is easier for children to recognize sadness and anger from people’s facial expressions, or from the events or actions in the stories.

This research will help us understand how children begin to categorize different emotions and the situations that cause them.

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

Emotion causes and effects

Many situations can cause different emotions, and there are many ways of expressing how you feel. How many different emotions does your child express during your visit in the Discovery Center? Are they surprised one moment, confused another moment, and happy the next? Does the way your child express his or her emotions change depending on who they are interacting with (e.g. a family member, a museum volunteer, or another child), or depending on the situation (e.g. in a crowded exhibit versus a one-on-one situation)?

Try it at Home

What makes you mad?

Think of a time when you were very angry: What made you so mad, and what did you do? Did everyone around you know that you were angry? Now think of a time that you were happy. What made you happy and how did you act? People might not always know how you are feeling, but often your face or your body language gives it away! How else can you express your emotions?

Emotion detectives

Try watching TV with the sound off and try to guess what the actors are feeling. Does your child’s guess match yours? Try watching the actors’ faces, their body language, and the other people around them. What gives you the most helpful information about how the character is feeling? Do you need to use a lot of clues at the same time to figure it out?