Children’s understanding of temporally mediated emotion

Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Counterfactual thoughts and their associated emotions have received considerable attention from developmental psychologists. In particular, studies have explored children's ability to experience and understand the emotions of regret and relief. The literature suggests these emotions emerge relatively late in childhood given the sophisticated counterfactual abilities required to experience them. However, recent theories suggest relief also occurs following the end of an unpleasant episode (e.g., Hoerl, 2015). In these so called 'temporal relief' instances, the emotion may not arise from complex counterfactual reasoning, but simply from an ability to appreciate that a negative event is now over and in the past. Until recently, developmental psychologists had only examined counterfactually mediated relief. Moreover, although previous work has explored children's ability to use past events to infer current emotional states (see Lagattuta, 2014), less is known about children's ability to understand how others feel immediately after events (positive or negative) are over. The current study explored children's ability to integrate temporal information into their emotion judgements and contributes to a literature which heretofore has only focused on counterfactual relief. Nine vignettes were presented to 100 4-6-year-olds (40% female). In each story, one protagonist went through an episode that subsequently ended. Character's attitudes were manipulated such that there were temporal relief stories, in which the episode was very unpleasant for the character, and temporal disappointment stories, in which the episode was very pleasant for the character. To gauge children's understanding of how the cessation of events can impact emotions, we asked participants to judge whether the characters felt better, worse, or the same after the event was over. We reasoned that characters in the temporal relief and temporal disappointment stories should feel better and worse than before respectively. We also compared judgements in these trials to control stories in which the character felt neutral towards episodes and as such should feel indifferent when the event ends. We found that even 4-year-olds were above chance levels at judging the characters in the temporal relief stories as feeling happier than before. The main analyses did, however, indicate that the 6-year-olds made significantly more target judgements than the 4-year-olds, OR = 4.40, SE = 2.94, p <.001, suggesting that the tendency for children to make these relief attributions increases with age. Unexpectedly, participants' judgements were more accurate in the temporal relief stories than in the disappointment and control stories (both p values <.001). This may be a result of individual differences in expectations about how people feel at the end of positive and neutral events. Overall, this study suggests that children are capable of attributing relief to others earlier than previously estimated in studies of counterfactual relief. This has implications for theories suggesting relief is best thought of as an emotion with two subtypes that have distinctive antecedents and cognitive prerequisites. Moreover, we provide evidence that 4-year-olds can integrate knowledge about the cessation of events into emotion judgements. This adds to a body of research which suggests young children are capable of taking past events into account when making judgments about how people feel in the present.
Period21 Apr 202223 Apr 2022
Event titleCognitive Development Society Biennial Conference 2022
Event typeConference
LocationMadison, United States, WisconsinShow on map