Child Recognition of Emotions
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Published: Fri, 23 Feb 2018
Human emotions serve as a means of expression, often indicating an individual’s internal conscious experience or physiological arousal. Emotions also serve as a form of communication, alerting individuals to important aspects of their environment and their relationships with other individuals. Emotions influence a person’s actions, cognitions, and how they are perceived by others (Strayer, 2002). For example, emotions may influence how individuals respond to an environmental threat, as feelings of sadness may indicate a withdrawal of behavior or feelings of fear may engage the activity of flight (Strayer, 2002). The experience of emotions, in turn, provides individuals with meaning about both their internal and external environments and information about how they should respond to a social situation.
The ability to develop an adequate understanding of emotions is known as emotional competence. More precisely, emotional competence is defined as “a demonstration of self-efficacy in emotion-eliciting social transactions” (Saarni, Campos, Camras & Witherington, 2006, p. 250). For children, one way to gauge their emotional competence is to examine their ability to perceive their own emotions and the emotions of others (Saarni et al., 2006). This type of assessment allows researchers to determine an approximate measure as to children’s emotional development level.
The first skill of emotional competence is for children to develop an understanding of self. Through an ability to be aware of their own personal emotional experience, children begin to develop self-conscious emotions. Feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment, for example, allow children to refer to themselves as having conscious awareness that they are distinct from others (Lewis, 1993, 1995; Mascolo & Fischer, 1995). In addition, children’s emotional competence is developed through an ability to be aware of multiple emotions or to feel that their emotions are in conflict with their environment (e.g., ambivalence; Stein, Trabasso, & Liwag, 2000). As children become aware of their own emotions, emotional development is strengthened and refined.
A second important skill development to emotional competence is for children to make sense of other’s inner states (Saarni et al., 2006). Specifically, children learn to comprehend and interpret other’s behaviors and begin to realize that others are capable of forming their own beliefs and emotions (for a review see Dunn, 2000; Halberstadt, Denham, and Dunsmore, 2001). Understanding the distinction between one’s own emotions and the emotions of others is crucial to emotional development in children. For instance, studies indicate that children’s ability to accurately identify emotions in self and in others may work as a gauge to assess social competence (Halberstadt et al., 2001). In these types of studies, children’s social competence is established by correlating their understanding of emotion terms, facial expressions, and elicitors of emotion terms (e.g., situational descriptions of a happy or sad event) with their social competence rating from teachers’ ratings or by peers’ sociometric choices (Saarni et al., 2006). Children’s ability to distinguish differences in emotional features in combination with how others view their ability provides a measure of their social competence. Monitoring children’s social competence allows one to identify socially disadvantaged children and implement effective coping strategies before any harmful, long-term effects manifest (Benford, 1998).
Through children’s awareness of their own emotional state, in combination with the skill to discern other’s emotions, children begin to achieve more effective emotional processing skills. Understanding children’s emotional processing is important because it affects many social outcomes, such as children’s helping behavior (Chapman, Zahn-Waxler, Cooperman & Iannotti, 1987, Miller & Jansen op de Haar, 1997), aggressive responses (Harris & Siebel, 1975), and self-control (Ceschi & Scherer, 2003). Few studies, however, have examined how emotion affects children’s abilities to accurately identify the emotional state of others.
Consequently, the present study sought to examine the effects of children’s own emotional states on their social/cognitive abilities to recognize emotional states in others. More specifically, this research sought to understand how positive, negative, and neutral emotional states of children affected performance on emotion recognition tasks that utilized different levels of cognitive complexity. By utilizing two types of emotion recognition tasks, the research examined the influence of differently valenced emotions on children’s social-cognitive abilities. Results may help to expand existing social information processing models by incorporating the influence cognitive complexity and affect may serve in children’s recognition of others’ emotions.
Understanding Other’s Emotions through Facial Expressions
The ability for children to understand what others are experiencing emotionally develops through an interaction between the awareness of their own emotional experience and the ability to empathize and conceptualize the causes of emotions in others (Saarni et al., 2006). In addition, the more children learn about how and why others act the way they do, the more they can make inferences about the emotional state of others. Children typically rely on facial expressions to infer others’ emotional state (Ceschi & Scherer, 2003; Holder & Kirkpatrick, 1991).
The face is considered the primary indicator of human emotion (Ekman, 1992). For example, body gestures are easily concealed (e.g., hiding a clenched fist behind one’s back) or verbal communication can be eliminated by simply refusing to speak. Facial expressions, however, are more difficult to disguise (Ekman, 1993). Additionally, the diversity in an individual’s face allows for a variety of emotional expressions, each associated with a distinct facial expression (Ekman, 1993). Facial expressions serve a dual purpose; facial emotions can indicate a person’s internal emotional state or function as symbols referring to something else, such as a form of communication (e.g., deterring or placating someone’s actions; Lewis & Michalson, 1985).
Facial expressions are commonly used as a means for gauging emotion states in research. By 2 ½ years, children can distinguish a number of basic emotional states in the facial expressions of adults, but do not always label them accurately (Izard, 1971). At 5 years, children can accurately label 41% of the emotions depicted in a set of adult photographs (Odom & Lemond, 1972). Overall, young children can recognize some of the more common emotional expressions as displayed by adults (e.g., MacDonald, Kirkpatrick & Sullivan, 1996).
By the ages of 11 or 12, most children recognize and verbalize that a person’s expression may be both a social and an emotional response (e.g., Underwood & Hurley, 1999). Consequently, children realize that a person’s facial expression may indicate both the individual’s internal state (e.g., “I am feeling sad”), as well as what the cues represent socially (e.g., “I am expressing my feelings of sadness towards others”). Each form of emotional expression is essential in order for children to interpret and comprehend another’s emotion (Underwood & Hurley, 1999).
Developmental Differences in Children’s Understanding of Other’s Emotional Experiences
As children mature, they acquire greater abilities to make inferences about what others are feeling (Gross & Ballif, 1991). Children, in an attempt to understand the emotions of others, begin to combine facial and situational cues. The ability to combine these cues, however, is strengthened and refined as children age. The easiest emotions for children to discern are positive ones (Saarni et al., 2006). Children can more readily identify happy reactions in a naturally occurring setting as compared to negative reactions (e.g. Fabes, Eisenberg, Nyman, & Michealieu, 1991). Negative facial expressions, on the other hand, such as sadness, fear, and anger, are more difficult for children to decode. Negative emotions become easier to interpret, however, when they are paired with an emotion-eliciting situational context (Saarni et al. 2006). In addition, the causes of negative emotion are easier for children to decode than causes of positive emotion, an explanation that appears consistent with negative emotions eliciting a more intense response (Fabes et al., 1991). For example, children can easily determine the causes for their goal failures because it is an undesired consequence.
Developmental differences are apparent when evaluating children’s understanding of the causes of emotions (Fabes et al., 1991). Younger children (i.e., 3 year-olds) are more prone to attribute causes of emotion to a person’s wants or needs, whereas older children (i.e., 5 year-olds) make use of other’s personality traits to determine their future reactions to an emotional event (Fabes et al., 1991). Children aged 5 to 10 years can use a character’s past experience to determine the character’s reactions to a new situation (Gnepp & Gould, 1985). For example, if a character’s best friend harasses him, children aged 5 to 10 can infer how that character will later react to seeing the best friend on the playground. The developmental difference is evident in the quality of the response. Younger children are more likely to infer what the character is feeling solely through the current situational information (e.g., the character would be pleased to see the best friend), whereas older children are more likely to use the prior experience to evaluate how the character will react (e.g., the character will avoid the best friend on the playground; Gnepp & Gould, 1985). Further support for this developmental difference is that younger children (i.e., preschoolers) are more likely to infer the emotional state of others when a character’s emotional cues are presented explicitly (e.g., pictorial representation of the character’s face) as compared to older children (i.e. school-aged) who can adeptly determine the character’s response when less explicit cues are utilized (Lagattuta, Wellman, & Flavell, 1997).
These investigations demonstrate that by school age, children are well equipped to identify emotional expressions in others. Although there are developmental differences in children’s abilities to identify reasons for the emotional expression, by the age of 5, children generally distinguish differences in emotional cues and identify different types of emotional expressions in others.
Integrating Cognition and Emotion
There has been considerable interest in how children interpret, encode, and respond to social environments. One such model that attempts to explain the relationship is the social information processing model (Crick & Dodge, 1994). The social information processing model assumes that the way in which children understand and interpret social situations directly influences how they respond behaviorally (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000). In turn, the social information processing model offers an explanation for how children process and interpret cues in a social situation and arrive at a decision that facilitates their understanding of the social environment (Crick & Dodge, 1994; Dodge, 1986). For any social interaction, children utilize their past experiences and biologically determined capabilities (e.g., memory store capacity) in order to rapidly assess the situation (Crick & Dodge, 1994).
To illustrate the social information processing model, imagine a child who gets pushed on the playground by another child. First, the child must encode the social cues (both internal and external) to determine what happened (attention, encoding) and then determine why it happened (interpretation: an accident or on purpose?). In the third step of the model, the child begins to clarify his or her goal in the social situation (e.g., goal to show others he/she won’t tolerate the behavior). In step four and five of the model, possible responses to the situation are generated in terms of anticipated outcomes and how those actions relate to the individual’s goals (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000). The child may choose to retaliate in response to the other child’s actions or the child may choose to not retaliate for fear of the situation escalating. Finally, the majority of children generally choose the most positively evaluated response with respect to goals and anticipated outcomes before the behavior is enacted (e.g., the child ignores the push and walks away; Crick & Dodge, 1994).
The social information processing model has been useful in assessing how children encode and interpret social situations. The model, however, does not specify how emotion affects the processing strategy (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000). Lemerise and Arsenio (2000) argue that it is possible to expand Crick and Dodge’s model’s explanatory power by integrating emotion processing with social information processing.
Before integrating emotion and social information processing, it is important to understand the relationship between the two. Emotions and cognitions may appear similar because both are types of information processing, but the way each influence human behavior makes them distinct (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000). Emotion is about motivation; cognition, on the other hand, concerns knowledge. This view is shared by many functionalist theorists, neurophysiologists, and some cognitive theorists (e.g., Campos, Mumme, Kermoian, & Campos, 1994; Damasio, 1994; Oatley & Jenkins, 1996).
Because cognition and emotion are two distinct processes, an attempt to devise a model that integrates and utilizes the two is pragmatic. In Lemerise and Arsenio’s (2000) social information processing model, the researchers added and expanded to Crick and Dodge’s (1994) original concept. In particular, the researchers implemented other emotion processes that could influence accessing and evaluating responses. As an example of this approach, intense emotions can interfere with the steps of Crick and Dodge’s model where children assess possible responses to a situation (Steps 4 and 5). For example, children with intense emotions may react negatively to a social situation (e.g., becoming easily upset and running away), thereby reducing the probability that they will interpret and encode the situation from the perspective of all parties (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000). Intense emotions, in turn, can influence how a child responds in a social situation. In addition, the child’s reaction to the social situation may be dependant on whether he/she cares about and wants that person to like him/her (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000). Emotions heavily influence this social decision making process.
It is difficult to adhere to a social informational processing strategy without accounting for the influences emotion may serve. Support for the role emotions play in social information processing has been demonstrated in more recent research (e.g., Orobio de Castro, Merk, Koops, Veerman, & Bosch, 2005). Specifically, researchers examined the relationship between emotional aspects of social information processing and aggressive boys. After hearing a series of vignettes that instilled provocation by their peers, participants answered questions concerning social information processing, including feeling of their own emotions, the emotions of others, and emotion regulation. Aggressive boys used less adaptive emotion-regulation strategies, attributed more hostile intent to others’ actions, and reported less guilt concerning their own actions (Orobio de Castro et al., 2005). For aggressive boys, anger attribution (i.e., encoding of emotions) significantly influenced the interpretation step of the social information processing model, a view that is consistent with Lemerise and Arsenio’s (2000) model. Clearly, emotions can influence children’s social information processing strategies. By combining emotional processing with social decision making processes, researchers can expand Crick & Dodge’s model’s explanatory power, perhaps offering further insight into the influence emotion serves for children’s cognitive abilities (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000).
Induction of Positive and Negative Affect
Researchers examine emotional influences on social information processing and other social behaviors by experimentally inducing emotions and assessing the effects (Bryan, Mathur & Sullivan, 1996; Bugental & Moore, 1979; Burkitt & Barnett, 2006; Carlson, Felleman & Masters, 1983; Masters, Barden & Ford, 1979; Stegge, Terwogt & Koops, 2001). Inducing affect typically consists of an experimenter having subjects recall events that make them happy or sad before examining their responses to a variety of social and cognitive problems. These problems can range from measures of altruism, self-gratification, or delay of gratification (Bugental & Moore, 1979). For this type of induction procedure, the researcher asks the child to recall and reflect upon a happy or sad past event for approximately 30 seconds to 2 minutes (Bryan et al., 1996). This type of procedure allows psychologists to examine how affective states influence individuals’ social and psychological behaviors (Bugental & Moore, 1979).
Pre-recorded videotapes or audiocassettes are another technique used to implement positive or negative affect in children (e.g., Carlson & Masters, 1986; Rader & Hughes, 2005). The recordings improve the reliability and standardization of the affect inductions. The recording typically follows the same procedural method as the other affect induction studies (e.g., Carlson et al., 1983; Masters et al., 1979; Moore, Underwood, & Rosenhan, 1973)—the person reading the script (e.g., actor, puppet) asks the child to ruminate on a past experience that is positive, negative, or neutral for approximately 30 seconds.
For any procedural method chosen, it is important to validate if the affect induction actually takes place. There are multiple methods for conducting manipulation checks. Procedures include: having two or more experimenters rate the child’s mood and assessing interrater agreement (e.g., Carlson & Maters, 1986); having participants use a word item check-list to indicate their current mood (e.g., Vosburg, 1998); or comparing if the performance of children in the positive or negative condition differs from those in the neutral condition (e.g., Bugental & Moore, 1979; Stegge et al., 2001). As demonstrated in past research, the induction of positive and negative moods is experimentally possible.
Positive and Negative Affect and Emotional Processing
There are a number of experimental studies that demonstrate the influence of children’s emotional states on a variety of emotional processes and behaviors, such as altruism (Chapman et al., 1987, Miller & Jansen op de Haar, 1997), aggression (Harris & Siebel, 1975), and self-control (Ceschi & Scherer, 2003).
One study, in particular, induced positive emotional states in a group of 5-6-year-old children to examine their responses to social comparison situations where the participant was rewarded unfairly, sometimes in the participant’s favor, sometimes in another’s favor (Carlson & Masters, 1986). Children were exposed to one of three emotion inducing conditions: self-focused happy, other-focused happy, or neutral. After the children focused on their own happy emotional experience (self-focused) or the emotional state of a friend (other-focused) or had no emotional focus (neutral), they and other players received a reward for participating in a game. Children received either more (positive inequality) or less (negative inequality) of an award as compared to the other players. Children in the self-focused happy condition did not demonstrate a reduction in generosity after receiving an inequality of rewards (Carlson & Masters, 1986). The authors interpreted their results as supportive of the position that positive mood facilitates tolerance of aversive experiences (Carlson & Masters, 1986).
What these studies did not answer, however, is what influence emotion serves in other social information processes. Specifically, how do inductions of positive or negative affect influence children’s emotion recognition?
One research experiment did attempt to investigate the influence children’s own emotional states has on their ability to recognize emotions in others (Carlson et al., 1983). Experimenters induced emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, or neutral affect in eighty 4 and 5 year-old children. The children were then provided with a label of an emotion (e.g. “happy”) and asked to identify the correct facial expression from a group of photographs of other children who were displaying various emotions. Significant differences in accuracy across the mood induction conditions were not found, but children’s own feelings of sadness did influence their perception of sadness in peers (Carlson et al., 1983). Sad participants were not more inaccurate than happy participants when identifying emotions, but when they were inaccurate they tended to confuse sadness with anger.
The induction of positive and negative mood in children appears to have an influence on children’s emotional processing. Negative affective states appear to lead to inaccuracies in the perception of others’ sadness, whereas positive affective states appear to help children maintain positive emotional experiences, even in the presence of aversive social situations.
Influence of Emotional States on Cognition for Adults
Despite the number of studies assessing children’s emotion processing ability, only a few studies have investigated how emotion-directed information processes, such as perception, attention, judgment, and memory recognition and recall, are influenced by the child’s own emotional state, whether enduring or temporary (Greene & Noice, 1988; Masters et al., 1979; Rader & Hughes, 2005). Because of this dearth in the literature, it is useful to review studies conducted with adults. One particularly important study, which examined the role affect plays in adult’s cognitive performance, induced positive and negative affect through the use of a role-playing technique while participants carried out three cognitive tasks (Izard, Wehmer, Livsey, & Jennings, 1965). The cognitive tasks ranged from participants generating as many possible uses for a particular object (multiple-use task), recalling sets of numbers (digit span test), and giving verbalized responses for creativity problems. Positive affect increased performance for both the multiple-use task and the creativity problems as compared to those in the negative affect condition.
Some literature supports the finding that positive affect results in higher productivity and creativity (Ashby, Isen, & Turken, 1999). Specifically, induced positive affect improved cognitive processes such as memory, judgment, risk-preference, decision-making, creative problem solving, categorization, and logical problem solving (Ashby et al., 1999). Other research, however, does not support the claim that positive affect improves cognitive productivity and creativity. Positive affect may actually interfere with performance on some tasks (e.g., Kaufmann & Vosburg, 1997).
In an attempt to explain the discrepancy in these results, Forgas’ (2000, 2002) affect infusion model (AIM) suggests that affect results in inattentive processing for complex tasks. As participants experience positive affective, for example, substantive processing or systematic processing may be hindered, thereby interfering with their ability to solve elaborate and complex problems. Specifically, negative moods may facilitate differentiated, analytic processing whereas positive moods may facilitate global, synthetic processing (Forgas, 2000). Negative moods may be more adaptive for cognitive tasks that require one to reduce complex decisions to a series of one-on-one comparisons, thus simplifying the results (i.e., analytic processing). Positive moods, on the other hand, may be more adaptive for cognitive tasks that require one to generate a wide variety of responses, often seeking out all possibilities for a solution (i.e., global processing).
Following Forgas’ (2000, 2002) AIM model, it is clear how research supports the notion that positive and negative affect are adaptive for different types of cognitive tasks. To clarify, some studies show that positive affect facilitates cognitive performance by increasing participant’s creativity (Ashby et al., 1999; Isen, Daubman & Nowicki, 1987; Isen, 2002; Izard et al., 1965). Other research, however, shows that positive affect results in inattentive processing, thereby reducing participant’s creativity and problem-solving (Forgas, 2000; Kaufmann & Vosburg, 1997). These seemingly contrasting findings are explained by differences in task specificity. In the research conducted by Kaufmann and Vosburg (1997), for example, positive affect significantly inhibited creative problem solving. After the researchers experimentally induced affect, participants responded to a series of tasks presented in a “paper-and-pencil” format, and received no outside feedback. Contrastingly, in research conducted by Isen et al. (1987), they used creativity measures such as the “candle-problem,” which required participants to physically manipulate objects and to come up with as many solutions to the problem as possible. In addition, the participants received feedback, which allowed them to instigate further solutions to the problem. Clearly, the tasks used in each of these studies are distinct. The notion that positive and negative affect are adaptive to different types of cognitive tasks is important because it points out the need to carefully consider the type of cognitive task being performed. Positive or negative moods may facilitate processing for different types of tasks in adults; therefore it is useful to examine how positive or negative moods affect children’s processing in different types of tasks.
Influence of Emotional States on Cognition for Children
There are indications that the influences of positive affect on children’s cognitive performance are similar to those in adults (Rader & Hughes, 2005). For example, eighth-grade students who were experimentally induced with positive affect showed greater cognitive flexibility than students in the control condition and obtained higher scores on a verbal fluency test (Greene & Noice, 1988). Likewise, researchers have examined the effects of emotional states on learning (Masters et al., 1979). After the induction of a positive, negative, or neutral emotional state, children completed a series of shape discrimination tasks. The dependent variable in the experiment was how many trials it took the children to achieve perfect mastery for the task (e.g. identifying 12 consecutive trials of shapes correctly). For children in the positive affect condition, positive affect enhanced performance. Contrastingly, for children in the negative condition, negative affect hindered performance dramatically (Masters et al., 1979). In addition, positive affect increased performance for children on a block design task, a challenging cognitive task that requires the use of spatial analysis (Rader & Hughes, 2005).
Research also suggests a relationship between affect and children’s thinking processes (Bryan et al., 1996). Specifically, negative affective states decrease participant’s efforts for processing cognitive information (Ellis, Thomas, & Rodriquez, 1984). Positive affective states, on the other hand, improve participant’s memory on various tasks, which include: mastery of a discriminatory task (Masters et al., 1979); altruism (Chapman et al., 1987; Miller & Jansen op de Haar, 1997); and child compliance (Lay, Waters & Park, 1989). In sum, positive affective states increase complex cognitive functions when participants are required to synthesize information in new and useful ways (e.g., word association and memory tasks, creativity tasks, problem-solving tasks; Bryan et al., 1996).
Social Information Processing and Cognitive Complexity
Children’s awareness of their own emotional state, in combination with their skill to discern other’s emotions, allows them to develop more effective social information processing skills. As children become more aware of emotions they or others are experiencing, it facilitates problem-solving (Saarni et al., 2006). In turn, when children know how to respond emotionally to an encounter, it can aid in their decision making strategy, thus influencing behavioral or cognitive processing strategies.
Task complexity can negatively influence accuracy in identifying emotional expressions in others (MacDonald et al., 1996). Specifically, research has shown how incorporating contextual information for an emotion recognition task results in lower levels of performance as compared to a task where children are given the label for the emotional expression (MacDonald et al., 1996). Labeling tasks involve an extremely easy stimulus (i.e. children are given a word), whereas contextual information tasks involve integrating and synthesizing implicit information (i.e. children must derive a word from the vignette)plexity. paragraph should be eliminated. This is more relevant to cognitive processing strategies rather than levels of task. Adding contextual information to an emotion recognition task, therefore, increases the difficulty of the task, resulting in lower performance, especially for younger children (MacDonald et al. 1996).
Past research on children’s emotional recognition has not adequately addressed the influence of children’s own emotional states (positive or negative) on the accuracy of the perception of emotional states in others. Research addressing the topic is minimal; only a few studies have approached the issue (e.g., Carlson et al., 1983). In addition, past research has not directly demonstrated how emotion and cognitive task complexity influence children’s ability to recognize emotion in others.
Based on the information regarding children’s ability to recognize emotions in others through their facial expressions; the developmental differences in children’s facial recognition abilities; the influence of emotion on children’s emotion processing; and the influence of emotion on adult’s cognitive processing, researchers can devise an appropriate social information processing model. The model, in effect, should integrate emotion and cognitive processes to determine the influence affect and task complexity have on children’s recognition of emotions in others.
The component of the model the present study investigated is how children’s own emotion affects their interpretation of social cues, specifically the emotional expression of others. Inaccurate interpretations will provide potential consequences to children’s subsequent social decision making processes.
The Present Study
The study examined the influence positive and negative affect has on children’s emotion recognition. Children, aged 5-to 8-years, participated because of their ability to identify emotions in others (Fabes et al., 1991, Gnepp & Gould, 1985, Saarni et al., 2006). Because emotion processing and cognition are considered an integral part of children’s social competence (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000), the study design combined and evaluated cognition and emotional processes. Specifically, the study investigated how the cognitive complexity of the task interacted with mood effects on emotion recognition performance.
In the experiment, children were individually tested. They were first exposed to one of three mood induction conditions (positive, negative, or neutral) using a computer setup with a pre-recorded audio file, a method that is consistent with a brief mood induction procedure (Rader & Hughes, 2005). For the testing procedure, the experimenter utilized two forms of emotion expressing questions: label-b
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