The capacity to recognize and understand emotions is one of the most important abilities that one learns in life. This skill matures in the early years and is practiced throughout our lives. Understanding emotions allows us to engage in successful social interactions – such as empathizing with others – but also helps us to regulate our own emotions and behaviors. In almost everything we do, we must attend to our own and others’ emotions.
When does our understanding of emotions start?
Research suggests that emotions are something we become attune to as early as the first few months of life! At three months, infants can differentiate smiling from frowning faces, and at five months, they can distinguish between happy and sad vocalizations. By the time they reach their toddler years, children begin to recognize and label basic emotions, such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. By four, children understand that emotions can be affected by external causes. For example, they understand that someone who gets their favorite dessert would be happy. As they age, children begin to conceptualize that someone’s emotions can depend on their internal desires and beliefs, and they understand that someone can show mixed emotions towards one situation. This conceptualization of emotions advances progressively throughout their development, with the mastery of some emotions (happy, sad) before others (surprise, fear).
How do children infer emotions?
There are two leading theories that describe how children infer others’ emotions: by relying on memorized scripts and considering others’ mental states.
Scripts are knowledge structures which consists of sequences of concrete events that allow people to follow common social conventions. For example, you might have a script for a child’s birthday party that guides your behaviours: you show up to the party with a present, you play games, you sing to the birthday child, they blow out their candles, you eat cake, birthday child opens presents, and you get a party favour when you leave. With emotions, children come to learn various scripts and the emotions that accompany them. For example, your child might learn the script that people are happy when they open presents. So, the next time they see someone opening a present, they might infer that the person is happy.
Researchers from Boston College have found that children as young as 3-years-old are able to use scripts to infer emotions. Given stories about concrete events, they can predict the valence of people’s emotions (e.g., feels good or feels bad), as well as the specific emotion labels (e.g., happy, sad, angry).
Mental States (desires, beliefs, goals)
In almost every social situation, we make predictions about how someone will act, respond, and feel based on what we know about their mental states, such as their desires, beliefs, and goals. Let’s take our birthday party scenario as an example: Having talked to the birthday child at school, your child knows that the birthday child wants a Lego set. But after opening all their presents, the birthday child realizes that they did not get a Lego set. From understanding the birthday child’s desires, your child will likely infer that the birthday child will be sad. This is an example of taking someone’s mental state into consideration when predicting how they feel!
Research shows that children’s ability to consider mental states when inferring emotions improves with age. Around age 2, children use people’s desires to infer simple emotions like happiness and sadness. But it is not until around age 7 that they can use people’s beliefs to infer complex emotions, like surprise and fear.
New research on how children infer emotions:
The two theories outlined above, inferring emotions through memorized scripts and mental states, are two prominent theories in the emotion literature. Over the past few years, Dr. Tiffany Doan, a recent PhD graduate from our DLL lab, has proposed an additional way children infer emotions: by using probability.
What is probability?
Probability is the likelihood of an event happening. For example, winning a contest is a likely event if few people enter, but is an unlikely event if thousands of people enter. Related to our understanding of emotions, how someone feels about the same outcome can differ depending on the probability of it occurring. Someone might feel happier about winning the contest if their odds of winning were low compared to high.
How do children use probability to infer emotions?
Let’s go back to our birthday party example. If asked to infer how a child feels about not being invited to a birthday party, your child’s inferences might differ depending on information about probability. If the birthday child was allowed to invite 20 classmates, your child might infer that the uninvited child would be very sad since the chances of getting an invite was high. However, if the birthday child was only allowed to invite two classmates, your child might infer that the uninvited child would be less sad, and perhaps even okay, since the chances of getting an invite was low.
A study conducted at the University of Waterloo investigated how children use probability to infer a particular emotion: happiness. In this study, researchers told children a story about a girl and a gumball machine that contained yummy and yucky gumballs. One group of children saw a machine that contained mostly yummy gumballs, and another group saw a machine that contained mostly yucky gumballs. Both groups were told that the girl wanted yummy gumballs, and watched her get two yummy and two yucky gumballs. Children were asked to rate how the girl felt using a happy face scale that ranged from extremely sad to extremely happy. Five- and 6-year-olds rated the girl as happier when the gumballs came from a mostly yucky gumball machine than when they came from a mostly yummy gumball machine. Rating the girl’s happiness differently despite her getting the same outcome suggests that children recognized that a better outcome was likely when the machine held mostly yummy gumballs and a worse outcome was likely when the machine held mostly yucky gumballs. Four-year-olds did not make the same inferences.
An additional experiment was conducted to see if 4-year-olds can use probability to determine the quality of an outcome, rather than using it to predict someone’s happiness. When given just the outcome of two yummy and two yucky gumballs, 4-year-olds judged that the outcome was better when they came from a mostly yucky gumball machine than when they came from a mostly yummy gumball machine. This suggests that they can use probability to infer the quality of outcomes.
In sum, by the age of four, children can use probability to infer the quality of an outcome, and by five, they can use probability to infer people’s happiness. These findings show that children infer emotions by relying on more than just memorized scripts and people’s mental states.
To summarize, the ability to infer people’s emotions is an important skill to master, and young children may use an array of cues to do so. They can rely on scripts, which are based on their memorization of the events that elicit each emotion. They can consider people’s mental states, like their desires, beliefs, and goals. And they can also use information about probability to infer how people feel.
Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:
Doan, T., Friedman, O., & Denison, S. (2018). Beyond belief: The probability-based notion of surprise in children. Emotion, 18(8), 1163–
Doan, T., Friedman, O., & Denison, S. (2020). Young Children Use Probability to Infer Happiness and the Quality of Outcomes.
Psychological Science, 31(2), 149–159. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619895282
Lagattuta, K. H. (2005). When you shouldn't do what you want to do: Young children's understanding of desires, rules, and emotions.
Child development, 76(3), 713-733. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2005.00873.x
Widen, S. C., & Russell, J. A. (2011). In building a script for an emotion, do preschoolers add its cause before its behavior consequence?.
Social Development, 20(3), 471-485. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9507.2010.00594.x