The Power of Labels, Consequences, and Facial Expressions to Evoke
Preschoolers' Knowledge of Emotions' Causes
Sherri C. Widen and James A. Russell
Presented at the
American Psychological Society's 15th Annual Convention
Atlanta, GA, May 2003
Lay people and scientists alike assume that, especially for young children, facial
expressions are a strong cue to another's emotion. We report a study in which
children (N = 120; 3 to 4 years) described events that would cause basic emotions
presented as facial expressions, as labels, or as behavioral consequence. For no
emotion was the facial expression the strongest cue. Performance for fear and
disgust was more accurate given the label or the consequence than given the
facial expression; performance for anger was more accurate given the
consequence. For 3s, behavioral consequences were the strongest cues to
emotion; for 4s, labels were.
By figuring out that his dad is angry, Johnny can learn more about anger:
What causes it, what its consequences are, how it is expressed, how it is labeled,
and so on.
Acquiring this information is important for various aspects of a child's
honing social skills, forming friendships, developing positive peer
relations, and adjusting to school (Denham, 1998; Shields, Dickstein,
Seifer, Giusti, Magee, & Spritz, 2001; Smith, 2001).
An understanding of emotion been theorized to pave the way for infant-
caregiver attachment (Bowlby, 1969, 1988; de Rosnay & Harris, 2002)
which has in turn been implicated in preschoolers' cognitive and
linguistic development (Robinson, & Acevedo, 2001).
But, how does the process get started? How did Johnny know that Dad was
angry in the first place?
Two broad approaches to emotion suggest different answers.
Facial Expressions: One approach suggests that Dad's angry facial
expression signaled his anger to Johnny and thus got the process of learning
about anger started.
Theoretical considerations of the evolutionary advantages of an emotion
signaling system between infant and caregiver (Bowlby, 1969, 1988;
Denham, 1998; Izard, 1971; Harris, 1989) have been taken to suggest that
very young children recognize specific "basic" emotions from facial
Harris (1989) proposed that an early understanding of facial expressions
leads to an understanding of other aspects of emotions, which leads in
turn to a theory of mind.
Denham (1998) pointed to this early understanding of emotion via facial
expressions as the "perceptual bedrock" (p. 61) for all later understanding
Emotion Labels: The other approach suggests that someone's labeling Dad as
angry might be what started Johnny's process of forming a concept of anger and
thus learning about it.
Linguistic evidence on cultural differences in emotion concepts can be
cited as evidence for this perspective (Wierzbicka, 1992; Harr, 1986; Lutz,
For preschoolers, there is some evidence for what has been called a Label
Superiority Effect. Children (preschool to second grade) heard stories about
emotional events and selected the protagonist's emotion from an array of three
facial expressions or from an array of three labels (Camras & Allison, 1985).
Surprisingly, children were more accurate with labels than with facial
expressions, especially for fear and disgust.
When children (4 to 5 years) were presented with a facial expression or
a label and then asked to describe the emotion's cause (Russell, 1990;
Russell & Widen, 2002), labels were again stronger cues than facial
expressions overall, especially for fear and disgust.
Behavior Consequences: There is another obvious possibility, namely that
children attend to overt behavior as a cue to the other's emotion.
Children find behavior highly salient, and quickly learn social rules from
their observations (Bandura, 1992), and use their observations of another's
behavior to solve problems (Call & Tomasello, 1995; Want & Harris, 2001).
Children attend to the social behavior in their environment to learn about
such things as gender roles (Powlishta, Sen, Serbin, Poulin-Dubois, &
This line of thought suggests that Dad's hostile behavior might be what got
Johnny's process of understanding anger started.
From this perspective, the behavioral consequences of emotions are strong
cues to emotions. To our knowledge, no prior research has addressed this
We asked children to imagine events that would cause happiness, sadness,
anger, fear, surprise, and disgust.
The emotion was presented as its facial expression, its label, or its
The cue that is more powerful in evoking this aspect of a child's
knowledge of an emotion is one indication of which cue plays a larger role in
acquisition of that knowledge.
The primary purpose of this study was to examine the power of behavioral
consequences of emotions relative to facial expressions and labels in eliciting
children's knowledge of the emotions' causes.
The behavioral consequences were brief descriptions of stereotypical
behavioral and observable physiological responses to emotional events (e.g.,
for fear, screaming and running away; for sadness, crying) (See Table 1).
Behavioral Consequence Used for Each Emotion
Sadness ... while D was in the living room, something happened that made
him feel a certain way. D walked slowly over to a chair and sat
down. Tears came to his eyes. He didn't want to talk to anyone.
Anger ... while D was at school, something happened that made him feel a
certain way. It made D yell and hit another kid. He clenched his fist
and stomped his feet. He yelled really loud.
Fear ... while D was at the park, something happened to D that made him
feel a certain way. It made D scream. He ran away as fast as he
could. D kept looking back to see if he was being followed. He just
wanted to get home where he was safe.
Surprise ... while D was outside, something happened that made him feel a
certain way. It made D stop and stand completely still. His heart was
beating very fast. He didn't know what had happened. He looked
around and tried to figure out what it was.
Disgust ... while D was in the kitchen, something happened that made him
feel a certain way. It made D want to wash. He wanted to get it off of
himself as fast as he could. He didn't want to touch that stuff.
Note. Each story began with, "The next day..." `D' stands for `David' or
`Danny', which ever name the child chose for the protagonist.
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