How do children’s mental pictures affect how they think about characters’ emotions?

    • Topic: Social Interactions

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Children can tell you that Little Red Riding Hood believes it is her grandmother (and not a wolf) inside the house, but they still describe her as scared before she opens the door. This study looks at how children’s mental pictures about a story may affect their ability to predict a character’s emotions and beliefs.

    In this study, children (ages 4-5) hear the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Children are asked to explain what she believes and feels at different points along the journey to her grandmother’s house. Some children hear other stories, in which characters are traveling to a location where their beliefs and emotions will change.

    We expect that it will be easier for children to correctly predict Little Red Riding Hood’s emotions when she is far away from the house than when she is at the door. Research suggests that when listening to stories, children create rich mental pictures of what the characters see, think, and feel and that these pictures are updated as the story progresses. As children listen to this story, they may begin to imagine the situation that awaits Little Red Riding Hood, feel anxious, and attribute this emotion to the character even though they know that Little Red Riding Hood does not know that the wolf is inside the house. We predict that children will say that Red Riding Hood is increasingly fearful as she gets closer to the house.

    This study will help us understand how a child’s imagination may play a role in how they perceive a character’s emotions or beliefs.

    Ronfard, S., & Harris, P. L. (2014). When will Little Red Riding Hood become scared? Children’s attribution of mental states to a story character. Developmental psychology, 50(1), 282-293.

    This research was conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by Samuel Ronfard the Harvard Graduate School of Education

        » Harvard Graduate School of Education

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Animal Surprises

    Observe the Giant Bee on top of the beehive in the Children’s Gallery. Ask your child: “How would you feel if you were standing near this animal while it was hiding but you did not know it was there?” If they say they would be afraid, take them some distance away from the animal, and repeat the question. Does your child’s answer change when they are further away?

    Puppet Playtime

    Play a hiding game with your child, using the animal puppets in the Children’s Gallery. Hide something that an animal might be afraid of (e.g., a predator) under a bucket, but ensure your child can still see it sticking out. Tell your child that the animal does not know that the predator is hiding under the bucket. Ask your child: “Will the animal run away from the predator? How do you think the animal feels?” Now, try hiding something the animal might like (e.g., food), and ask your child: “Will the animal look for the food? How do you think the animal feels?”

    Activities to Try at Home

    Interactive Storytime

    The next time you are reading a story that your child knows well, stop at various points in the story to ask your child what the characters believe and feel, and what they are going to do next. See if you child’s answer changes depending on whether the characters are close to the main action!

Research Spotlight

Contact Living Laboratory staff: