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Emotional Recognition in the Very Young Infant


That no continuity of personality from infancy to adulthood has yet been found does not necessarily mean that none exists [Fischer, 1984].

Children seem to develop an awareness of emotional expressions extremely young. ``At about nine months of age infants begin to monitor the emotional responses of other people... By one year of age normally developing infants are discriminating in expressing emotion... During the second year, infants continue to refine their awareness of others' attention, seek out emotional cues, and increasingly use them to guide their behavior'' [Sigman and Capps, 1997] Other researchers argue that this recognition may develop even earlier but that our methods for detecting it are flawed. As an example, Piaget documented spontaneous smiling at four months, whereas Legerstee (1992) demonstrates that as early as two months infants treat people as social objects, differently than other kinds of objects.

In the first months of life the infant is quite helpless. She relies on a care giver to intervene to relieve stress, distress, fear, frustration and other negative emotions. She becomes conditioned to the idea that the people around her will respond and behave in a particular manner. For the very young child success is extremely important. To feel gratified promotes optimism and trust between the child and care giver. This gratification initially comes from the care giver directly. As the child begins to explore her world she instinctively returns to the care giver periodically for emotional cues and gratification.

Exhibiting a behavior known as social referencing, infants look at their care givers when faced with a situation which is ambiguous... Further, infants respond to the emotional signal conveyed, approaching in response to positive affect and retreating in response to negative affect [Sigman and Capps, 1997].

Piaget demonstrated that by ten months of age the child is able to discriminate strangers, and begins to show separation anxiety from the mother [Piaget, 1952]. This clearly demonstrates the child's acquisition of face recognition, but does not directly imply that recognition of emotional facial expressions has developed.

Darwin (1872, 1873) was among the first to document facial expressions in humans and animals. Darwin documented similarities in the facial expressions of people across cultures, in addition to studying posture, and movement in the limbs, trunk and head. His conclusion that emotions, their expression, and their recognition are innate and universal, are currently in dispute [P. Ekman and Ellsworth, 1972] [Carol Ellis Izard and Zajonc, 1984](and others). Some of these reports claim that until 3 to 3.5 years, children from different cultures can not even accurately identify happy and unhappy responses in other people [Borke, 1973] [Ekman, 1994].

In summary, the internalization of emotional recognition, by the child, is approximated to occur between the first and third year. Contrary to Darwin's belief that this ability is innate, the general consensus is that through `social referencing' a child will learn to discriminate between positive and negative valenced emotions. The Affective Tigger project provides further research into the assessment of at what age emotional recognition is acquired.

The capacity to distinguish among different expressions of emotion is not tantamount to the possession of a concept of any of the discriminated emotions. Admittedly it is possible, - certainly Darwin argues as much - that infants have an innate capacity not simply to recognize particular facial expression of emotion but also to identify the emotional state that they convey. It seems safer to view the infant as being well tuned to the discrimination of emotional expression but requiring considerable instruction in their significance. Children can not understand the most basic emotional states unless they penetrate beyond the expression of those states [Saarni and Harris, 1989].

next up previous contents
Next: Emotional Expression in the Up: Child Development Previous: Moral Assumptions

Dana L Kirsch
Tue May 25 08:59:22 EDT 1999