September 2011
Volume 11, Issue 11
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   September 2011
Happy or Sad? Context Does Not Influence Four-Year-Olds' Perception of Happy and Sad Facial Expressions
Author Affiliations
  • Matt Horner
    Brock University, Canada
  • Cathy Mondloch
    Brock University, Canada
  • Jasmine Mian
    Brock University, Canada
Journal of Vision September 2011, Vol.11, 599. doi:
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      Matt Horner, Cathy Mondloch, Jasmine Mian; Happy or Sad? Context Does Not Influence Four-Year-Olds' Perception of Happy and Sad Facial Expressions. Journal of Vision 2011;11(11):599.

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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Adults' perception of facial displays of emotion is influenced by context; they make more errors and take longer to respond when the emotion displayed by the face (e.g., fear) is incongruent with the emotion displayed by the body (e.g., anger) (Meeren et al., 2005). This congruency effect is larger when emotions are similar (Aviezer et al., 2008). Previously, we reported that, like adults, 8-year-olds show congruency effects for sad/fearful facial expressions, but not sad/happy facial expressions, perhaps because happy and sad expressions differ in valence and intensity whereas fearful and sad expressions differ only in intensity (Widen & Russell, 2008). Additionally, happy and sad expressions share fewer physical characteristics than fearful and sad expressions (Aviezer et al., 2008). Because even infants and pre-school children are sensitive to emotional valence (Widen & Russell, 2008) we hypothesized that pre-school children would not show congruency effects for happy and sad facial expressions. Four-year-old participants (n = 12) helped a puppet sort faces into one of two houses (a happy or sad house); faces were presented in isolation, and on congruent/incongruent bodies. They showed no effect of congruency, p > .20, despite sorting isolated bodies almost perfectly. In a control study designed to verify that the lack of congruency effect could not be attributed to our child-friendly method, adults (n = 12) performed this same task with face/body expressions previously shown to elicit a congruency effect - sad/fear. They made more errors on incongruent trials, p < .01. Our data suggest that children's early sensitivity to emotional valence precludes congruency effects for happy/sad expressions, which we are testing in a follow-up study with two to three-year-old children - the youngest children that can reliably sort these facial expressions. Collectively, these results provide novel insights about how and when context influences children's sensitivity to facial expressions.


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