Children's Recognition of Disgust in Others

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Abstract

Disgust has been theorized to be a basic emotion with a facial signal that is easily, universally, automatically, and perhaps innately recognized by observers from an early age. This article questions one key part of that theory: the hypothesis that children recognize disgust from its purported facial signal. Over the first 5 years, children experience disgust, produce facial expressions of disgust, develop a concept of disgust, understand and produce the word disgust or a synonym, know about disgust's causes and consequences, and infer disgust in others from a situation or a behavior. Yet, only gradually do these children come to “recognize” disgust specifically from the “disgust face” found in standardized sets of the facial expressions of basic emotions. Improvement is gradual, with more than half of children matching the standard disgust face to disgust only at around 9 years of age and with subsequent improvement continuing gradually until the late teens or early adulthood. Up to age 8, a majority of children studied believe that the standard disgust face indicates anger. Rather than relying on an already known signal value, children may be actively learning to interpret the expression.

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