Emotional Development

Self and Self-Conscious Emotions

The concept of self is a cognitive achievement that normally occurs around one and a half years of age. With the emergence of self, an elaboration of emotional life occurs such that emotions focusing on the self emerge. These self-conscious emotions include empathy, pride, shame, guilt, and embarrassment. Examination of the facial expressions and nonverbal behavior of young children placed in situations designed to elicit embarrassment (e.g., looking at themselves in a mirror, being complimented, dancing in front of their mothers and the experimenter) shows that embarrassment does indeed emerge after the development of a self system. Pride and shame are studied by observing children's facial, postural, and verbal expressions in response to success and failure on simple tasks. Children as young as three years show pride when they succeed and shame when they fail the tasks. More shame is observed when children fail easy as opposed to difficult tasks, and more pride is observed when difficult tasks are accomplished. Cultural and gender, as well as developmental, differences in these important self-evaluative emotions are being studied.

The Development of Self-Awareness

For years, research at the Institute has examined the development of self-awareness in children during the second year of life. Self-awareness can be indexed by the emergence of visual self-recognition, and it is an essential element in the emergence of personal pronoun use, pretend play, and the development of a theory of mind. Visual self-recognition is assessed by surreptitiously applying a spot of rouge to the child’s face and then observing whether he or she touches the spot when in front of a mirror.

In normally developing children, this mark-directed behavior typically begins around 18 months of age. In children with Down Syndrome, this mark-directed behavior occurs when children reach a mental age of approximately 18 months. We have obtained evidence to suggest that the emergence of self-recognition reflects the capacity for a meta-representation of the self, sometimes referred to as the mental state or the idea of “me.” For example, we found self-recognition to be a prerequisite for children’s expression of various self-conscious emotions, including embarrassment. In recent work, we sought to provide additional evidence that self-recognition reflects a self meta-representation by demonstrating relations of self-recognition to both personal pronoun use and pretend play. Personal pronoun use (e.g., “me” or “mine”) would seem to provide a verbal indication of a self meta-representation. Pretend play would appear to be a nonverbal manifestation of the ability to understand mental states, including one’s own as well as another’s, thereby providing the cognitive basis for a theory of mind. The origins of a theory of mind involve a self pretending; that is, the appearance of the self that knows that it knows and knows that its play is not real. We found that self-recognition is related to personal pronoun use and pretend play such that self-recognizers use more personal pronouns and show more pretend play than nonself-recognizers. The demonstration that these capacities are related confirms that in the middle of the second year of life a meta-representation of self or explicit consciousness emerges in the human child.

Shame, Pride, and Embarrassment

three children showing emotions

A major focus in the Institute's research on the development of emotions has been how children’s emotional lives change when they develop self-awareness. This major milestone occurs sometime between 15 and 24 months of age. We have documented the appearance of an early form of embarrassment related to exposure or being made conspicuous - for example, Shame Pride Embarrassment when being pointed at, complimented, or asked to do something silly - in young children almost as soon as they show self-awareness. In children between the ages of 4 and 6 we have studied age and sex differences in the appearance of evaluative emotions - shame, embarrassment, and pride - around failure and success at simple tasks.

We find that even at these early ages, there are individual differences with about 15% of children being shame-prone. We find that children’s negative emotions are related to their self-report of how badly they feel following failure, whether they judge the task as easy or hard, and their willingness to attempt it again. These individual differences might underlie children’s achievement related behaviors and how they cope with failures and disappointments generally.

Lying and Deception

A common concern voiced by parents is “Is it a problem that my child lies to me?” The fact is, children often lie to deceive others, typically to avoid punishment. So then, is lying a problematic behavior or indicative of moral ineptitude? In addressing these issues, three important questions were asked:

  1. when do children acquire the skills to lie?
  2. what is the difference between children who transgress and then lie versus those who transgress and tell the truth? and
  3. are there cultural differences that might help explain these phenomena?
    Self-Control and the Development of Deception in Young Children

The study of deception allows us to examine what young children understand about others and about managing their own expressions. In our studies, we ask children (28-77 months) not to peek at an interesting object that is placed out of sight; however, we expect the child to do so (compliance). After leaving the room for 5 minutes, we then ask the child if he or she peeked (deception).

Approximately 80-90% of children peeked, and between 85-95% of the transgressors lied when asked about it. Thus, when given the opportunity, we find that children as young as 2½ years of age will lie about a transgression. We have found that children learn very early that they can control their expressions in order to fool others. This requires at least a basic knowledge that others do not know what you know (i.e., theory of mind). As children’s understanding of others’ mental states improves, 5- to 6-year-old children become able not only to control their expressions, they improve their ability to cover their tracks and/or successfully discard the evidence of their transgression.

Correlates of Self-Control and Deception in Young Children

Our studies found several factors that affect whether a child will peek and if they will lie about it afterwards. Children with stronger cognitive resources and those faced with fewer environmental challenges (e.g., family circumstances) were more compliant than other children. Given that other measures tapping impulsivity demonstrate that more competent children are less impulsive, it is not surprising that compliance in this task also was related to cognitive competence. In addition, this result highlighted the importance of children’s environments to their development of self-regulatory control. However, of the children who do peek, more competent children are more apt to lie about it. Age, IQ, socio-emotional competence (i.e., emotion knowledge), and better neonatal health predicted lying about peeking. The association between higher competence and lying suggests that, for those children unable to resist the initial temptation, lying is the adaptive response to their misdeed. Most peekers choose to lie about their behavior, particularly older and higher IQ children who “know better” than to confess. Hence, among young children, lying appears to be a sign of competence rather than a signal of pathology.
Differences in Self-Control and Deception between Japanese and American Preschoolers

Cross-cultural investigations show that cultural practices can make a difference when it comes to child compliance, but not to deception. Japanese parents tend to facilitate self-discipline, politeness, and attentiveness to others more than American parents, and Japanese socialization practices place a greater emphasis on child obedience to adult authority than do American practices. The question then becomes, do these teaching practices help Japanese children not to peek and/or to tell the truth compared to American children? In fact, cultural differences did emerge, such that the Japanese children were better able to resist temptation than the American children (59% resisted). Nevertheless, children in both cultures overwhelmingly chose to lie about their peeking behavior. This study suggests that self-control is influenced by teaching practices, and that it is normal and adaptive for children to lie to cover their tracks when they are too young to resist temptation.

Artful Liars: Adolescent Malingering on Draw-A-Person Tests

Malingering is a form of deception in which one fakes illness for a reward. In this study, adolescents were asked to malinger trauma on a standardized, clinical measure (Draw-A-Person). Individuals first drew figures of a man, woman, and self. They then imagined they were in an auto accident and drew the figures again, as if they were claiming trauma from the accident. The drawings were objectively scored and compared. Results indicated that youths successfully malingered trauma by drawing more “primitively,” earning lower cognitive ability scores.

Anger and Sadness During Infancy

While the study of fear, smiling, laughter, surprise, disgust, and even sadness in infancy has been widespread, the study of anger in infants has been neglected. Infants can learn to control slides and music by pulling a ribbon attached to their wrist. In our studies, we find an increase in motoric response concomitant with increases in negative emotions, particularly anger when their ability to activate this outcome is thwarted. Individual differences appear quite early, with some babies showing more sadness than anger in response to frustration. Further work on whether the sadness or anger response may be related to a depressive-prone or aggressive temperament style is being explored, as well as its relation to how mothers respond to their babies’ distress.

Many Faces of Learning: The Emotion and Learning Project

The emotion and learning project first examined changes in facial expression of emotion when 2- to 8-month-old infants learned a simple instrumental action. Both age-related changes and stability of individual differences have been studied. Prototypic enjoyment, interest, and surprise expressions are observed when infants learn to pull a ribbon to turn on a slide of a happy baby and children’s voices singing a pleasant tune. Negative expressions such as prototypic anger and sadness occurred when infants became fatigued, bored, or frustrated.
Complimenting this project has been work examining the range and variability of infant facial expressions in response to a variety of specific stimuli designed to elicit emotion, for example, a balloon popping, arm restraint, a masked stranger, etc. These studies confirm that basic facial expressions of emotion emerge by 4 months of age, and that certain stimuli elicit appropriate and expected expressions on average. Often, however, a range of expressions and consistent individual differences in response to specific stimuli can be seen between 4 and 12 months.

What Makes Baby Mad or Sad?

In recent work, we have observed emotion expressions when young infants are frustrated by a change in what they expect. Once infants learn that they can control the pictures and music, we change the rules of the game. We find that infants become angry when their access to the pictures and music is altered. When the pictures and music are abruptly turned off so that the infants can no longer pull to see them, they begin to pull more to try to get the slideshow back. They also show facial anger. The most annoying situation, however, appears to be having the pictures and music come on randomly, regardless of their pulling. In this case, infants stop pulling and express even more anger. In ongoing work, we are studying other forms of frustration and have added measures of cardiac variability to our measures of emotional behavior. By adding physiological measures, we can better understand how anger and other negative emotions are related and explain individual differences in emotional responses.

Antecedents and Consequences of Anger in Young Infants

If babies as young as 4-5 months show anger when they are frustrated, how this expression arises and whether it becomes a stable part of children’s behavioral styles are important questions to parents and clinicians alike. Our work suggests that early maternal responsiveness is a factor influencing whether babies express negative emotions, including anger. We find that mothers who are most responsive to their infants’ vocal signals in the home setting had infants who were less likely to express anger and sadness in the laboratory when they experienced a mild frustration at 4-5 months. Responsive mothers seem to help babies maintain positive emotions and dampen negative emotions.

We followed these infants, seeing them again at 20 months of age, and observed their responses to other forms of frustration. We asked mothers to interrupt their play and restrain them from returning to a bag full of toys in one situation. Later, we placed an attractive toy under a large plexiglass cube out of their reach. Both situations were mildly frustrating for toddlers; however, infants who expressed anger in the learning lab at 4 to 5 months were less likely to insist on returning to the toys, and they persisted unsuccessfully in obtaining the toy from under the cube. In contrast, the most persistent children at 20 months were those who had shown less anger and had the more responsive mothers earlier. Our results suggest that responsive mothers help young babies suppress negative emotions, and that, over time, these children seem to be better in control of their emotions when they encounter mildly frustrating environmental events. These children do not become upset or over-active. Lack of responsive mothering, on the other hand, seems to allow expression of more negative emotions in young babies and leads to persistent, unproductive efforts to overcome frustration as toddlers. Work currently underway is attempting to replicate these findings and relate them to individual differences in children's physiology.

The Development of Scripts for Emotional Behavior

At very early ages, children begin to understand which emotions go with which situations. Individual differences are found in young children's knowledge of which situations trigger the negative emotions of sadness and anger. Likewise, as early as three years, children can voluntarily produce positive expressions, while the negative emotions appear more difficult to express voluntarily even for five-year-olds.

Children's Emotions and Parents’ Attributions

Success or failure produce not only emotional responses (pride or shame), but also self-reflections. Among these are attributions about the causes of success and failure. Is the outcome due to internal factors (one's own ability or effort) or external factors (task difficulty or luck)? Is the cause due to the nature of the self (global) or to particular events and actions surrounding the outcome (specific)? Our work in this area shows that children as young as three years perceive tasks as either "easy" or "hard," and that these perceptions are related both to the child's internal (self-focused) versus external (task-focused) explanations for success or failure, and to whether or not pride or shame is displayed. Individual differences in children's expressions of shame and pride also are related to what parents say to children about their performance in achievement settings. We have found that children’s shame is related to the amount of positive evaluative feedback provided by parents during a difficult problem-solving task; the more positive parental comments, the less shame. Parental statements that were global (that is, general, nonspecific positive or nonspecific negative comments) are related to greater expressions of shame.