Infant Differential Behavioral Responding to Discrete Emotions

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Abstract

Emotional communication regulates the behaviors of social partners. Research on individuals’ responding to others’ emotions typically compares responses to a single negative emotion compared with responses to a neutral or positive emotion. Furthermore, coding of such responses routinely measure surface level features of the behavior (e.g., approach vs. avoidance) rather than its underlying function (e.g., the goal of the approach or avoidant behavior). This investigation examined infants’ responding to others’ emotional displays across 5 discrete emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. Specifically, 16-, 19-, and 24-month-old infants observed an adult communicate a discrete emotion toward a stimulus during a naturalistic interaction. Infants’ responses were coded to capture the function of their behaviors (e.g., exploration, prosocial behavior, and security seeking). The results revealed a number of instances indicating that infants use different functional behaviors in response to discrete emotions. Differences in behaviors across emotions were clearest in the 24-month-old infants, though younger infants also demonstrated some differential use of behaviors in response to discrete emotions. This is the first comprehensive study to identify differences in how infants respond with goal-directed behaviors to discrete emotions. Additionally, the inclusion of a function-based coding scheme and interpersonal paradigms may be informative for future emotion research with children and adults. Possible developmental accounts for the observed behaviors and the benefits of coding techniques emphasizing the function of social behavior over their form are discussed.

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