Structure and content in children's concepts of emotion

Tolmie, Andrew (1990) Structure and content in children's concepts of emotion. Doctoral thesis, City of London Polytechnic.


Emotional development is defined as the acquisition of knowledge to serve the regulatory activities of identification of state, behavioural prescription and prediction, and causal understanding. This knowledge is held to be organized into concepts which encode information about the relationship between four classes of feature, antecedent situation, behaviour, sensation, and mental state.

Experiment 1 used structured interviews to examine primary school children's knowledge of emotions and non-emotions. Analysis of transcripts showed children's knowledge of the classes of feature to-emerge in a consistent order irrespective of feeling, but for emotions, knowledge of the relationship between antecedents and behaviour, and subsequently mental statO, was central, whereas for non-emotions, knowledge focused on sensation and behaviour. The data are consistent with encoding of emotional episodes into event schemata, whose activation gives rise to mental states that allow control of reaction or anticipation of the behaviour of others.

On this basis, explicit identification of emotion is held to rest on knowledge of conjunctions between antecedents and behaviour, but evidence suggests children acquire general categorical knowledge of conjunctions and labels independently of event schemata, because it serves the distinct function of causal understanding. Integration of knowledge into overall structures is viewed as a major goal of development. A model of such structures is proposed, consisting of a hierarchy of increasingly abstract representations of emotional events. Active categorization of an episode is argued to depend on activation of event schemata and subsequent criterial activation of the links between ascending levels. Degree of activation is defined as a function of frequency of experience of an encoded event.

Consistent with the model, Experiment 2 found that children between 5 and ii years recognized emotional labels for antecedents more often than they actively retrieved them, but that the relative frequency with which labels were identified for an item remained constant across task. Experiment 3 showed the relative frequency with which children retrieved specified terms for antecedent and behavioural features was positively correlated with estimates of the frequency of occurrence of relevant conjunctions derived from Experiment 1. Experiment 4 found that children could only retrieve a term for presented antecedents or behaviours if they were also able to identify featural complements for these, supporting the hypothesis of label retrieval through activation of event schemata.

Further support for the hierarchical model is outlined in terms of its ability to account for a range of phenomena, from expansion of the emotional vocabulary, to personalized inferences of emotion. A number of avenues for future research are identified, focused on children's ability to estimate the probabilities of behavioural responses to different situations, and on the development of causal explanations of such responses.

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