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Social Differential Emotions

Although the concept of ‘emotion regulation’ is an important one for Differential Emotions and Social Constructivist theories, these two theories approach emotional development in different ways. Compare and contrast these two approaches and discuss the evidence about the role of emotion regulation in children’s development.


There is no doubt that emotions have a vital role in everyday life but like so many other psychological phenomena, emotions are easily recognized but difficult to define. There is very little agreement about boundaries which outline emotions. According to Wikipedia, “Emotion, in its most general definition, is an intense mental state that arises autonomically in the nervous system rather than through conscious effort, and evokes either a positive or negative psychological response” (

As emotions are central to healthy social and cognitive functioning so the focus is now on emotional development. There are two basic schools of thought on this issue:

This essay will first compare Differential Emotions theory and Social Constructivist theory with regard to emotional development as these two theories approach emotional development in different ways. This essay will then, by defining emotion regulation, describe the role of emotion regulation in children’s development.

Differential Emotions theory versus Social Constructivist theory

According to the Differential Emotions Theory by Izard & Malatesta (1987), children are born with some emotions such as interest, distress, and disgust. When infants reach the age of four months, most of them have ability for anger, surprise, joy, and sadness and by the age of five to seven month they are capable of fear. These are innate and universal emotions. These emotions are called primary (basic) emotionsbecause they are formed in the first year of life. There are distinct patterns associated with different emotions.

Differential emotions theory purposes that basic 9-11 emotions are hard-wired in the human central nervous system and their development is strongly influenced by neuro-physiological maturation. According to this theory, basic emotions are biologically-prepared responses to certain types of stimuli which involve universal facial expressions. Izard & Malatesta (1987) claim that these basic emotions each have

On the other hand Social Constructivist theory more focus on social roles and the construction of emotions as part of the process of taking on a society’s values, assumptions and way of thinking. Avrill (1980) argued that emotions can be considered as social roles. And these social roles need an active explanation by the individual for their ‘enactment’. According to Avrill (1980), an emotion “is not something we do (an action), but something that happens to us (a passion)” (Avrill, 1980, p.311).

Contrasts to Differential Emotions Theory, social constructionists believe that emotional knowledge is represented in a purely symbolic manner. For social constructionist the meaning of emotion is constituted by a set of rules that specify the kinds of persons, situations, and actions to which the emotion word applies.

As Averill (1980) explained the relationship between culture, consciousness, and emotions, "the emotions are viewed here as transitory social roles, or socially constituted syndromes. The social norms that help to constitute these syndromes are represented psychologically as cognitive structures or schemata. These structures -- like the grammar of a language -- provide the basis for the appraisal of stimuli, the organization of responses, and the monitoring of behaviour, that is, for the improvisation of emotional roles" (Averill, 1980, p. 305-306).

According to Ratner (1989), “social Constructivist maintains that emotions are depended on a social consciousness concerning when, where, and what to feel as well as when, where, and how to act” (Ratner, 1989, ¶ 4). That means, if a person finds him/herself in a situation to which a specific emotion word applies, this person has both the moral right and the moral obligation to experience the emotion, and to behave accordingly.

Opposite to the social Constructivist theory, early Differential emotions theory maintains that emotions are products of natural processes which are independent of social norms and conscious interpretation. But later on Izard & Malatesta (1987) accept the role of cognition on emotional development and also recognise the importance of maturational processes. They gave a timetable of emotional development so that how a particular emotion is linked to age.

Along similar lines, Fox & Stifter (2005) also argued that “During the first three years, there is rapid development of complex emotional states. These states may involve the expression of discrete facial expression” (Fox & Stifter, 2005, p.240). They said that there are three motivating forces which are involved in emotional development (first year of life):

Fox & Stifter (2005) also purposed that interest, disgust and undifferentiated distress are present at birth. Social smiling and anger are two discrete and distinct emotions which appear in the first year of life as a result of social interaction. They argued that by the end of first two year infants have some emotional development that guide them how to behave in their social sphere.

Harris (1989) argued that in the process of emotional development, the emergence of imaginative representational abilities at three to four years of age is a crucial period.

The child’s growing knowledge of not only his own mental states but also others’ mental states leads him gradually to a better social understanding and control of emotions. Harris (1989) argued that this understanding also leads him to an increased differentiation. The implication is that, once the basic emotions are in place, it is cognitive regulation of emotion that develops, rather than the emotions themselves.

From Social Constructivist point of view, emotion is a dynamic interplay between individual and environment. And emotional development is influenced by social context as well as cultural context. As Izard and Ekman developed coding systems for facial expression (as cited in Fox & Stifter, 2005) so they are criticized by Social Constructivist by questioning, is emotional expression enough?

Saarni, Mumme & Campos (1998) defined emotion as "the person's attempt or readiness to establish, maintain or change the relation between the person and the environment on matters of significance to that person" (Saarni, Mumme & Campos, 1998, p.238). They examined that emotional states are initially broad and undifferentiated. Emotional awareness is learned with experience.

Saarni (1999) mentioned that emotional competence is embedded in cultural context.

According to her following skills are parts of emotional competence:

Emotion regulation

In simple emotion regulation is an ability to modulate or control emotional expressions or behaviour. Emotion regulation raises some conceptual challenges, because it bridges the boundary between emotion and cognition. However, there is no question that it is attracting a large amount of research (e.g. Cole, Martin & Dennis 2004)

Cole, Martin & Dennis (2004)

Gross & Thompson (2007) stated that “emotion regulation is crucially ambiguous, as it might refer equally well to how emotions regulate something else, such as thoughts, physiology, or behaviour (regulation by emotions) or to how emotions are themselves regulated (regulation of emotions)” (Gross & Thompson, 2007, p.7).

Clearly there is a large overlap between coping and emotion regulation

Emotion regulation is in some sense more far-reaching than coping. Whereas coping is typically thought of as a response to emotion, emotion regulation also covers manipulation of predicted emotions. Emotion regulation can be divided into two areas: antecedent-focused and response focused.

Antecedent-focused emotion regulation is choosing or avoiding environments that promote certain emotions. Some possible types include situation selection (choosing or avoiding a situation entirely), situation modification (changing a situation) and attentional deployment (choosing to attend to or ignore certain aspects of a situation). In general, then, the agent has some prediction of what an emotion might be in some situation, and takes steps to avoid it or reinforce it.

Response-focused emotion regulation encompasses response modulation, which is actively trying to change your post-appraisal responses (e.g. change one’s facial expression, suppress one’s anger).

Role of emotion regulation in children’s development

If Differential Emotions Theory is correct, emotional development is to a large extent the development of processes of appraisal, modulation and integration: that is, of emotion regulation. It follows that research needs to establish how children in general learn to regulate emotions and why some children fail to do so. Bradley (2000) has argued that temperamental dispositions make it difficult for some children to acquire emotion regulation. She proposes that children learn .affect regulation. via their early attachments and relationships, while failure to develop regulatory abilities leads on to psychopathology at a later age. There is growing evidence that children initially acquire (or fail to acquire) effective emotion regulation via interactions with parents (Laible & Thompson 2002). Emotional knowledge and regulation at 3years of age has

been found to predict social competence at kindergarten age (Denham et al 2003a), while lack of emotional knowledge at 3 to 4 years predicted kindergarten aggression (Denham et al 2003b)


Losonczy, Marta E. 22-SEP-04.

Ratner, 1989, ¶ 4

Saarni C. (1999). The development of emotional competence. New York: The Guilford press.

Saarni C., Mumme D. L. & Campos J.J. (1998). Emotional development: Action, communication and understanding. In W. Damon, N. Eisenberg (eds.) Handbook of Child Psychology, vol.3, New York: J. Wiley and S., pp.237-309.

Gross & Thompson (2007)

Marinier, B. (2006). Towards a Unified Theory of Emotion and Cognition