YOUNG PRESCHOOLERS' ABILITY TO IDENTIFY EMOTIONS IN EQUIVOCAL SITUATIONS
Young childrens' ability to perceive others'
feelings has previously been assumed to be limited; such suppositions
have, however, been themselves limited by non-contextualized
measurement. Thus, it was predicted that preschoolers will show a
non-chance ability to use personalized information about others'
emotions. This ability will be age-related, and greater where: (a) the
other's and their own likely emotions differ along positive/negative
valences; and (b) certain pairs of self/other emotions are contrasted.
Preschoolers (N=53) were presented puppet vignettes in which they were
to identify the puppet's emotion; happy, sad, angry, and afraid
emotions were contrasted. Subjects often made Personalized inferences
to correctly indicate the puppet's feelings. Each hypothesis was
Young childrens' ability to perceive others'
feelings has long been assumed to be limited due to cognitive
immaturity and egocentrism (Chandler & Greenspan, 1972). In recent
years, however, this assumption has been challenged by use of more
contextually valid measurement tools, and more careful sub-analyses of
the abilities involved in such affective sensitivity (Denham, 1986;
Denham & Couchoud, 1990; Gnepp, McKee, & Domanic, 1987).
Earlier research on young preschoolers'
emotion knowledge has suggested that young preschoolers can infer basic
emotions (e.g., happy, sad, angry, and afraid), either from expressions
or from situations. By the end of the preschool period, if not earlier,
they also can quite easily identify the linkage between emotional
expressions, situations which unequivocally cause emotion (e.g., being
happy to receive an ice cream cone), and the consequences of such
emotional expressions (Denham, 1986; Denham & Couchoud, 1990;
Gnepp, Klayman, & Trabasso, 1982; Michalson & Lewis, 1985;
Stein & Jewett, 1986; Strayer, 1986). Specifically, this research
indicates that happy expressions and situations are more readily
identified than negative expressions or situations, particularly fear
(Denham & Couchoud, 1990).
Current research also portrays younger
children as beginning to identify other persons' emotions, even when
their own reactions might reasonably differ (Denham, 1986; Gnepp, 1983;
Gnepp & Gould, 1985). Gnepp calls this the ability to make
inferences of appraisal; in her measures, such inferences require the
use of personalized knowledge of the person to conclude that s/he is
feeling a non-consensual emotion (i.e., most people would not feel this
way; e.g., feeling happy at seeing a spider, or sad to go on a family
hike). This ability increases with age, from kindergarten through
elementary school (1983; Gnepp & Gould, 1985). Increasing social
experience, and the cognitive ability to process information gleaned
from such experience, presumably underly this age change.
Discovery of these abilities highlights the
need to investigate preschoolers' capabilities to use expressive cues
to identify protagonists' emotions in more complex situations.
Kindergarteners have some trouble making nonconsensual inferences of
appraisal, and younger children may have particular difficulty doing
so, perhaps because the bases for such inferences are out of the realm
of their experience. Gnepp's procedures can, however, be modified to
test the proposition that children younger than six years old are
beginning to make correct inferences of appraisal.
Perhaps young preschoolers find it difficult,
despite their developing theories of mind (Harris, 1989), to make
inferences that are as personalized as Gnepp's. In contrast, perhaps if
Gnepp's procedures were modified to focus on situations where
protagonist's emotions, rather than quite unusual and personal (e.g.,
loving spiders), were within the realm of experience (e.g., being happy
or afraid to go in a swimming pool), greater ability in younger
children would be discovered. Thus, in this study emotionally equivocal
situations rather than nonconsensual reactions to typically unequivocal
situations were presented to the preschool-aged subjects.
In these equivocal situations, any given
child could easily feel either of two possible emotions (e.g., one
could reasonably be afraid or quite happy to enter the water at a
swimming pool, depending on personal experience and preference). Most
preschoolers would have experienced the possibility of differing
reactions to certain different emotional situations; they know that
people have differing beliefs and desires (Gnepp, 1989a; Gnepp et al.,
1987; Harris, 1989). Thus, this level of personalized inference of
appraisal might be easier for them to make. It was predicted that,
given such modifications, the ability to make personalized inferences
in such situations would exceed chance expectations in young
preschoolers, although many subjects would evidence some difficulty in
making these inferences. It was also predicted that, even within a
relatively restricted age range, this ability would increase with age.
Further, the downward extension of procedures
used to evaluate children's abilities to make inferences of appraisal
must focus on contextualization of measurement. To this end, engaging
the preschooler's attention, minimizing verbal response requirements,
and integrating the experience into ongoing play were undertaken in
It also is important to examine children's
abilities to identify others' emotions in equivocal situations across
several different emotions, since earlier research with unequivocal
situations supports a discrete emotions view (i.e., that some emotions
would be more difficult to understand than others, due to the
differential communicative value of each; Izard, 1971). This research,
thus, extends that of both Denham (1986) and Gove and Keating (1979) in
its examination of personalized inferences involving different
The following predictions also expand on this
earlier work: Given young preschoolers' advanced understanding of
happiness relative to negative emotions, it was expected that the
other's emotional reaction would be easier for young preschoolers to
discern where happiness or negative emotions are possible, as opposed
to where two negative emotions are possible. Further, sadness is often
used by preschoolers as an omnibus negative emotion; it may be inferred
when other negative emotions are actually expressed. Also, of the four
basic emotions, fear is the most difficult for preschoolers to
correctly identify. Therefore, it would be reasonable to assume that
when the two possible emotions for any situation includes the emotion
of fear, the preschoolers' nascent ability to make personalized
inferences of appraisal would break down. This would be true whenever
fear is a possibility, whether in equivocal situations where happiness
and fear, or fear and another negative emotion, are involved.
In this study, three hypotheses were
therefore addressed. First, preschoolers will show a greater than
chance ability to make personalized inferences of appraisal, and this
ability will be age-related. Next, personalized inferences of appraisal
will be more readily made by preschoolers for certain contrasted
emotions. For example, children might most easily be able to make
inferences of appraisal if the emotions inherent in the equivocal
situation vary along positive/negative valences. Making inferences of
appraisal would be more difficult where the two possible emotions are
negative. In either case, situations where fear is possible should be
the most difficult.
The sample consisted of 53 preschoolers with
a mean age 44.88 months (range: 33 to 56 months). There were 27 boys
and 26 girls. They attended five classrooms in a university laboratory
preschool in a suburb of a major metropolitan area.
Measures and Procedures
Children were escorted to a quiet area by a
female tester whom they knew well. They were presented with twelve
vignettes via puppetry; the situations in each were planned to be
equivocal (i.e., two emotional responses to each event were possible,
such as feeling happy or sad to come to preschool), so that the child
had to attend to the puppet/experimenters' emotional cues to make the
correct inference. To this end, the puppeteer's systematically
controlled, standard facial and vocal expressions of emotions were
included during each vignette. These peak facial expressions followed
prototypes of discrete emotions theory (Izard, 1971; see Table 1 for
examples of expressions and vocalizations, for each specific emotion).
The 12 items represented two contrasts each of possible emotional
responses to specific situations: happy or sad, happy or angry, happy
or afraid, sad or angry, sad or afraid, and angry or afraid (see Table
Situations portrayed in each item were chosen
based on questionnaire responses from 41 adults. These adults were
given a pool of 30 situations and asked to identify what emotion a
child would feel in each situation, from a choice of the four emotions
previously mentioned. The 12 vignettes chosen for inclusion in the
measure were those for which the adults' responses were approximately
evenly divided between two emotions as paired previously, suggesting
that the situations were indeed equivocal.
Order of the situations was randomized for
each subject. Children were asked to respond to the question of "How
does the puppet feel?" by affixing a felt face with the appropriate
emotional expression on the puppet (from a choice of happy, sad, angry,
and afraid). They received I point for a response which depicted the
emotion actually shown in the situation, and 0 points for any other
response. The pair of items for each emotion contrast were summed,
yielding six emotion contrast scores per subject.
The emotion shown by the puppet/experimenter
in each vignette was determined by in formation given by subjects'
mothers, who had indicated the emotional reactions that their child
would show in each equivocal situation. The same-sex puppet depicted
the contrasting emotion in each situation. Information from mothers was
used to maximize the necessity for the child to make personalized
inferences of appraisal. Even if the mothers' responses were at times
incorrect, the situations enacted by the puppets were equivocal in
nature, so that the child would have to attend to the
puppet/experimenters' emotional cues to make correct personalized
inference of appraisal. In Table 3 the number of children shown each
emotion for each vignette, and the number of errors made for each
emotion portrayal are shown.
The expressions on the detachable faces have
been validated with a sample of 41 adults (i.e., happy, sad, and angry
faces were correctly identified by 85 to 95% of the adults, whereas the
fearful face was correctly identified by 65% of the sample. Wagner,
McDonald, and Manstead  corroborate that fear expressions are the
hardest to identify, even for adults). Further, children showed their
ability to identify these expressions prior to the 12 vignettes; the 53
subjects in this study obtained an average score of 6.4 (with one point
each given for correct verbal and nonverbal identification of each
expression). In fact, 41 of the 53 subjects obtained either seven or
eight of the eight possible points on this measure. Nevertheless,
ability to identify the emotion expressions involved was used as a
covariate in the ANOVAs, in order to assess the effect of
positive/negative valence, unconfounded by the effect of sheer ability
to discriminate the expressions to affix to the puppet.
Subjects quite often spontaneously verbalized
about the process of making personalized inferences of appraisal. At
times, the children evidenced simple wonderment at the puppets' "odd"
perspective (e.g., looking very surprised, or saying, "But why????"
"But I love French fries!"; But I love to swim in the water!") They
also questioned the nature of the situation, even while indicating the
correct emotion (e.g., "Why did the mom say he couldn't touch that?").
They seemed to be grappling with the fact that emotional situations
could be equivocal.
At other times, their reactions were more
complex. For example, one boy, after indicating that the puppet was
indeed happy to eat oatmeal (i.e., making the inference of appraisal),
lectured the puppet on its more objectionable qualities, notably its
lumps! Some children changed the stories, as in putting the angry face
on the dog puppet when the child puppet was afraid (i.e., creating a
consensual emotional situation), having the girl puppet suck her thumb
when she was sad, and saying "They'll bring her some ice cream" (cf.
Gove & Keating, 1979). It is clear that the children struggled with
what they felt were the somewhat unusual emotional responses of the
puppets. Making personalized inferences of appraisal was not always
easy for them.
Hypothesis One: Overall Ability to Discern Equivocal Situations, and Effect of Age
To demonstrate the subjects' overall ability
to make personalized inferences for emotionally equivocal situations,
the sum of each subject's scores of one or zero for all 12 vignettes
was divided by 12 to form a proportion-correct score. The average of
these proportion-correct scores for the 53 subjects, .66, was
significantly greater than that expected by chance, t (52) = 12.98, p
< .001. Next, an Age (3) x Sex (2) mixed model ANCOVA was set up.
For the repeated factor, two levels of a Valence factor were created:
(a) the mean of positive-negative items, such as Happy-Sad; and (b) the
mean of negative-negative items, such as Sad-Angry. Means and standard
deviations for these scores are listed in Table 4. Total score for
labeling and recognizing the emotion expressions served as the
covariate. Gender was not used as a factor in this analysis, because
preliminary between-subjects Age (3) x Sex (2) ANCOVAs (with expression
labeling/recognition total scores as the covariate) showed that gender
never exerted a significant effect on the emotion contrast scores;
moreover, there were no significant Age x Sex interactions.
The Age factor consisted of 3-year-old,
3-1/2-year-old, and 4-year-old levels. Older children made more
accurate personal appraisals, F (2,49) = 3.10, p < .05. There was
also a significant main effect for the covariate of ability to identify
emotional expressions, F (1,49) = 4.74, p < .05; children who were
less adept at identifying the expressions on the felt faces
understandably made less accurate personal appraisals. There was no
significant Age x Valence interaction, F (2,50) = 0.89.
Hypothesis Two: Equivocal Situations Involving Positive and Negative Emotions Versus Only Negative Emotions
To determine whether valence contrasted
affected scores on the measure, the repeated measure factor in the
ANCOVA was evaluated. Results indicated that preschoolers were indeed
more able to utilize the personal emotional information regarding the
puppet, and make a personalized inference of appraisal, in vignettes
with positive-negative emotion contrasts, rather than negative-negative
contrasts, even with ability to label the emotional expressions on the
faces partialled out, F (1,50) = 28.81, p < .001.
Hypothesis Three: Differences Among Specific Emotions Within Positive/ Negative Emotion Contrasts
The significant F aforementioned confirms
that young children were more able to use personalized information for
certain emotion contrasts. Planned comparisons using the six emotion
contrast scores as dependent variables pinpointed the nature of this
effect: Scores were lower for vignettes involving fear as a possibility
(see Table 5). Scores for the happy versus sad items were also higher
than those for the happy versus angry items.
Moreover, nonparametric analyses of
distributions of errors shown in Table 3 corroborate these findings.
Subjects made more errors than expected by chance whenever the puppet
enacted fear; chi2s (1) for contrasts of afraid versus
happy, angry, and sad equalled 9.78, 13.09, and 54.87, respectively, p
< .001. Similar analyses also suggested that correctly identifying
the puppet's angry emotion was more difficult when the subject's own
likely emotion was sadness; chi2 (l) equalled 10.12, p < .001.
Discussion and Conclusion
These results corroborate those reported by
Gnepp and Gould (1985), where kindergarteners responded to equivocal
situations correctly over 60% of the time, and abilities to make
personalized inferences of appraisal increased with age through sixth
grade. This study confirms similar trends with younger subjects and
equivocal, rather than nonconsensual, situations. In less taxing
procedures than Gnepp's, these subjects accurately identified emotions
in approximately 66% of the equivocal situations. Contextualized
measurement appeared to make this task accessible to younger
preschoolers (cf. Denham, 1986; Denham & Couchoud, 1990). It may be
quite important that actual facial and vocal cues were available to the
children to aid them in their decisions (Gnepp, 1989a). Subjects were
not, however, merely "reading" off the puppet's emotional expressions;
their spontaneous verbalizations, and the significant Valence effect,
despite partialling of ability to identify emotional expression, argue
against this simple an explanation.
Happiness/nonhappiness is the first
differentiation made among both emotional expressions and emotional
situations (Borke, 1971; Bullock & Russell, 1985; Denham, 1986;
Denham & Couchoud, 1990; Michalson & Lewis, 1985; Ridgeway,
Waters, & Kuczaj, 1985). Happy expressions and situations may be
also accentuated by socializing agents more than negative expressions
and situations (Malatesta, 1981). It is not, therefore, surprising that
this developmentally early differentiation is also found in a more
Stein and Jewett's (1986) model would also
support these findings based on dimensions differentiating the causes
of happiness, fear, anger, and sadness. In states of happiness, one is
focused on attainment of a desired state or avoidance of an undesired
state; one anticipates goal enjoyment. In all negative emotional
states, one focuses on an undesired state which is eminent. Thus, there
is a clear distinction between happiness and the negative emotional
states. Sadness is likely to be the first, more or less global,
negative emotion differentiated on this basis.
Young children's slow identification of
specific negative expressions and situations also would suggest that
vignettes where two negative emotions were possible would be more
difficult, as was found here. Earlier analyses of kindergarteners'
understanding of equivocality have suggested that young children do
realize there are situations in which different persons feel different
ways. Preschoolers may fail, unless prompted, however, to apply this
general knowledge to specific emotional situations (Gnepp, 1989a,
1989b; Gnepp et al., 1987).
In particular, earlier research suggested
that young children find stories where the consensual emotional
reactions are positive, and personalized reactions are negative, easier
than those which contrast two negative emotional reactions (Gnepp and
Gould, 1985). This finding is conceptually similar to the main effect
of valences found here.
Subjects' confusion over situations which
pitted a positive and a negative emotion may be qualitatively different
than confusion over two possible negative emotions. The differentiation
among negative emotional states is more individual, more dependent upon
one's interpretation of the situation. For example, although both fear
and sadness focus on the consequences to self of an undesired state,
loss is emphasized in sadness, and anticipation of harm in fear. In the
equivocal situation of receiving punishment for misbehavior, then, some
children may focus on the anticipation of harm from a spanking (and
choose fear); others on the loss of "face" or of closeness with the
parent (and choose sadness). Further, as corroborated in chi-square
analyses here, the same situation can cause anger or sadness depending
on the individual's focus (e.g., one is angry when one's blocks are
knocked down if one focuses on the violation of one's wish by another,
or one is sad if one focuses on the loss of the beautiful tower). Thus,
the possibility of individual differences in negative emotional
situations may have rendered children's choices more difficult in such
Fear is one of the last negative emotions to
be accurately identified (Michaelson & Lewis, 1985); not
unexpectedly, children in our study had difficulty making personalized
inferences of appraisal when fear was involved. This relative
deficiency may stem from different socialization of fear than for other
emotions. For example, parents say, "Don't be afraid." and people talk
much less about fear than about other emotions. Full-blown fear is also
not often observed in others, and the experience of this emotion may
become more inward than anger and sadness; thus these children may have
had less experience dealing with the fear emotion. This lack of
experience, coupled with the relative perceptual difficulty of
differentiating the fear expression, make for ample justification of
this study's findings.
The hypotheses addressed were thus supported.
More research on the substantial affective knowledge of preschool
children is needed to address certain issues, such as fine-tuning the
measure introduced here, by asking children how they would feel in
these situations and later enacting the puppet vignettes with the
alternate emotion, and by more intentionally equating emotional
intensity for each vignette. Young preschoolers' differentiation of
negative emotions should also be more finely delineated.
The abilities discussed here also appear
important in the enactment of socially competent behavior. For example,
Denham, McKinley, Couchoud, and Holt (1990), and Gnepp (1989b) have
found these skills to be related to sociometric peer ratings (even with
level of cognitive development partialled out). These abilities also
are implicated in self-regulation of emotion, particularly the
self-regulation involved in reacting to others' emotions. First, one
must safely determine which negative emotion one's peer is emitting
(e.g., so that one can either respond prosocially, withdraw, or stand
up for one's rights) and second, one must determine whether positive
emotion is being emitted (e.g., so that one can share in it).
Understanding of equivocal emotional situations may, thus, allow for
better cue use in emotional situations, and its development should be
further studied to maximize children's social competence.
An earlier version of this paper was
presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Psychological
Association, August 26, 1987.
Reprint requests can be sent to:
Susanne A. Denham
Department of Psychology
George Mason University
4400 University Drive
Fairfax VA 22030
TABLE 1 Indicators of Emotion Shown by Puppet and Puppeteer
The following chart reads as follows:
Row 1: Emotion; Hand Puppet's "Body Language"
Row 2: Puppeteer's Facial Cues; Puppeteer's Vocal Cues
1 Happy "Bounces,"
Broad smile Relaxed,
2 Sad Wipes eyes,
Eyes & mouth Whiny,
down-turned crying tones
3 Angry Clenched
Eyebrows down, Gruff, growling,
lips pursed clipped, abrupt
4 Fear Hands up Rigid
Eyes wide, High-pitched
mouth gaping unwavering
TABLE 2 Vignette Content
Emotion Contrast Vignette Content
Happy or Sad Separating from mother when coming to
Happy or Sad Going to airport to see parent off on a trip.
Happy or Angry Being served favorite or most hated food.
Happy or Angry Coming in from playing outside when called for
Happy or Afraid Meeting a very big, but friendly, dog.
Happy or Afraid Going into the water at the swimming pool.
Angry or Sad Some other kids not letting you play.
Angry or Sad Having to stay home when everyone else goes out
to get ice cream.
Sad or Afraid After doing something naughty, a parent says
you do it again, you will be punished.
Sad or Afraid Experiencing the death of a pet.
Angry or Afraid Being punched by an older sibling, who says
(s)he will do it again if you tattle.
Angry or Afraid Getting a spanking.
TABLE 3 Emotions Enacted for Vignettes
Legend for Chart:
A - Emotion Contrast
B - Correct Emotion
C - N[a]
D - Errors[b]
A B C D
Happy/Sad Happy 35 5
Sad 70 8
Happy/Angry Happy 42 0
Angry 62 6
Happy/Afraid Happy 33 4
Afraid 73 19
Sad/Angry Sad 37 7
Angry 69 25
Sad/Afraid Sad 29 6
Afraid 75 71
Angry/Afraid Angry 42 10
Afraid 62 34
a Number of children viewing puppet emitting
this emotion in the two vignettes for this emotion contrast. b Number
of errors out of N seeing this emotion.
TABLE 4 Descriptive Data for ANCOVA
Legend for Chart:
A - Repeated Factor
B - Youngest[a], M
C - Youngest[a], SD
D - Middle, M
E - Middle, SD
F - Oldest, M
G - Oldest, SD
A B C D
E F G
Positive-Negative 1.24 0.63 1.68
(1.31)[b] -- (1.66)
0.29 1.57 0.50
-- (1.52) --
Negative-Negative 0.83 0.57 1.24
(0.90) -- (1.22)
0.51 1.33 0.37
-- (1.28) --
a Age groups correspond to 3-year-olds, 3-1/2-year-olds, and 4-year-olds. b Means adjusted for covariate are in parentheses.
TABLE 5 Planned Comparison Data
Emotion Contrast Scores M SD
Happy/Sad[a] 1.79 0.50
Happy/Angry 1.53 0.72
Happy/Fear 1.17 0.80
Sad/Angry 1.51 0.78
Sad/Fear 0.98 0.75
Angry/Fear 0.91 0.84
Planned Comparison F P
Happy/Sad vs. Happy/Afraid[c] 29.31[d] .001
Happy/Angry vs. Happy/Afraid 11.00 .001
Happy/Sad vs. Happy/Angry 7.91 .01
Sad/Angry vs. Sad/Afraid 15.63 .001
Sad/Angry vs. Angry/Afraid 19.07 .001
Angry/Afraid vs. Sad/Afraid 0.28 ns
a Scores based on two items, each contrasting
the two emotions. Highest possible score = 2. b Means adjusted for
ability to label and recognize emotional expressions are in
parentheses. c Scores higher for italicized emotion pair. d df =
(1,51); all contrasts significant at p < .001 would still be
significant if a Bonferroni correction were used.
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By Susanne A. Denham and Elizabeth Couchoud, George Mason University
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