How do children learn to recognize new facial expressions?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Throughout their development, children must learn to recognize many different facial expressions. In addition, they have to learn labels for them (like, “happy”, “sad”, and “afraid”). Researchers still don’t know exactly how children learn to recognize and label all the different expressions that they see. In this study, we examine how children ages 2-4 years recognize new expressions they have never seen before.

    To find out, we show children groups of three photographs, with each showing a person making an expressive face. Some of the expressions are familiar emotions (like a happy or a sad face) and some of them are new expressions (like a face with puffed out cheeks). We ask children to choose the face that matches either a real emotion word (“happy”) or a nonsense word (“tolen”).

    Our results so far show that children can use the process of elimination to match a word they have never heard before with an expression they have never seen. This might help children learn labels for new expressions as they grow older. This study may help adults better understand how children learn about new emotions.

        » Children can create a new emotion category through a process of elimination

    Nelson, N. L., Nowicki, E., Diemer, M. C., Sangster, K., Cheng, C., & Russell, J. A. (2018). Children can create a new emotion category through a process of elimination. Cognitive Development, 47, 117-123.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by the Emotion Development Lab at Boston College.

        » Emotion Development Lab

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Animal Expressions

    Do animals express emotions too? Do they make the same expressions that people do? Find some animals around the Discovery Center and watch their faces. What do you think they are feeling? See if you and your child can label them using words that you know. Can you come up with new names for their expressions? How else might animals let others know that they are happy, angry, or afraid?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Making Faces

    Practice making faces with a friend or family member. Can you make your face look happy, sad, or angry? See if your partner can guess what emotion you are expressing. Now try to make a brand new expression that doesn’t match any emotion you’ve seen before. What would you call this new feeling?

Research Spotlight

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