Can Children Recognize Bodily Expressions of Emotion?

Abstract

Past research has demonstrated that children understand distinct emotion concepts and can accurately recognize facial expressions of distinct emotions by a young age, but few studies have assessed the age at which children develop the ability to recognize bodily expressions of distinct emotions. The current pre-registered research is the largest study to date (N = 552) examining the age at which children begin to recognize static bodily expressions of three negative emotions: anger, fear, and sadness. Our findings suggest that bodily expressions of sadness are recognized at rates consistently above chance by the age of 3-years, fear around the age of 4- to 5-years, and anger between the ages of 6- and 8-years. Recognition of all three expressions increased with age. The current research is the first to address this question using an entirely between-subjects design, allowing us to rule out the possibility that accurate recognition occurred as a result of a process of elimination or memory. Together, these findings suggest that children can reliably identify distinct negative emotions from bodily expressions, and this ability varies by age and the specific emotion being identified.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In the original paper by Harrigan (1984), the authors used the phrase “Mad at someone” for the emotional term “angry”. In the current work, we opted to use the term “Mad” instead, to broaden the scope of the emotion beyond an experience directed toward one specific other individual.

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Funding

This study was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight grant (Grant Number F17-04512).

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Correspondence to Zachary Witkower.

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Witkower, Z., Tracy, J.L., Pun, A. et al. Can Children Recognize Bodily Expressions of Emotion?. J Nonverbal Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-021-00368-0

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Keywords

  • Emotion recognition
  • Bodily expression
  • Emotion