The Power of Labels, Consequences, and Facial Expressions to Evoke

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The Power of Labels, Consequences, and Facial Expressions to Evoke

                 Preschoolers' Knowledge of Emotions' Causes

                        Sherri C. Widen and James A. Russell

                                   Boston College

                                   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

   social functioning

         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?

                             Possible Explanations

  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

      of emotion.

  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, &

   Eichstedt, 2001).

  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


                                      The Study

  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

   behavioral consequence.

      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).
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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