Psychology Undergraduates Study How Young Children Learn to Label Emotions

 Psychology Undergraduates Study How Young Children Learn to Label Emotions

Psychology undergraduates Ashley Ruba and Ryan Johnson can probably do you one better. “I don’t know if anyone’s done research until they’ve worked in a baby lab,” says Ruba, a senior from Apex, N.C.

“There’s so much more involved,” adds fellow senior Johnson, of Lorton, Va.,

Undeterred, the two students are trying to assess how children learn to label and categorize emotions. They say their findings could help determine what mechanisms help kids learn emotions later in life. And, they add, proficiency at identifying others’ emotional expressions has also been linked to increased social skills and academic competence.

Ruba is doing her honors thesis on how 18-month-olds learn to label and categorize emotional expressions, namely anger and disgust.  So is Johnson, though her focus is more on how parent interaction helps 12-24-month-olds label emotions.

Johnson and Ruba say children learn to label objects early in infancy, but take longer to develop their ability to label emotions — possibly because it requires more cognition to process these more complex social cues.

Past research has shown that infants as young as 3 months can perceive differences between emotional facial expressions, such as “happy” and “surprised.”  .

While that research by others has focused on what emotions infants can discriminate between and when, less research has been done on how infants learn to label these expressions, Ruba and Johnson say.

The idea for their research came from Psychology & Neuroscience professors Makeba Wilbourn and Lasana Harris. Wilbourn says how children learn to recognize and label emotions is “incredibly important” because it reveals how and when children begin to use their cognitive and language skills to make sense of their social-emotional world. 

In Ruba’s study, 18-month-olds are shown a photo of a young girl expressing one emotion (e.g. anger), until the child’s looking time decreases by a certain percentage. Ruba then shows the toddlers the same girl expressing a different emotion, such as disgust. If the child can discriminate between the two faces, then he or she should look longer at the new face, Ruba says.

“So far, we have found that 18-month-olds can discriminate angry and disgust faces,” Ruba says. “This is interesting, since children as old as 11 have difficulty with a similar task. We suspect that learned social information about anger and disgust makes it more difficult for children to use their ‘basic,’ perceptual cues.”

For Johnson’s study, the 12-24-month-olds are shown images of five emotions expressed by a face on an original interactive picture book: happy, sad, angry, disgust and fear. They are also shown six neutral expressions.

“Parents tend to avoid talking about the emotion itself and do more wiggling with the negative emotions,” Johnson says. Instead of telling their child the person in the picture is scared, for example, mothers might say the person in the image is surprised. And rather than say the person in the image is “disgusted” by the food in front of them, they say “yucky” or “stinky.”

“Maybe moms are avoiding talking about negative emotions and are trying to put a more positive light on it,” Johnson says.

“Kids can display all these emotions — a child can be angry, sad and disgusted,” Harris says. “But if a mother is not distinguishing these emotions when the child experiences them, or observes them in other people, then it’s possible the child is lumping them all together as negative or bad. Sad, angry, disgust, is all ‘upset.’ “

Such fuzzy descriptions over time can lead to problems later in life, Wilbourn says. Children who learn early to accurately appraise and respond to emotions tend to end up more socially competent and socially savvy, she says.

Children’s early learning about the language of emotion may provide valuable insights into their later social and emotional development, which has important implications for children with development delays or deficits, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, according to Wilbourn.

“Putting these two studies together, hopefully will give us a better picture of how kids learn emotional labels, but also to discriminate emotions and make attributions,” Wilbourn says.

How parents help this development is also part of the study.

“What we are interested in is how and when the ability to label emotions develops, and the role parents play in this development,” says Kristin Johnson, a graduate student in psychology and adviser to Ryan Johnson and Ruba. “It could have ramifications for kids who do have trouble recognizing emotions. Identifying developmental differences early and understanding how parents’ interactions affect kids’ learning might help those kids.”

Below: Lauren Furer and her daughter Olivia look at images on a video monitor and in a picture book as part of a study exploring how infants learn to label emotions. Duke undergraduate Ashley Ruba talks with the mother.  Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography

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