Experience alters how we perceive emotion

Because people recognize the same emotions across languages and cultures, psychologists have long suspected that a person's ability to perceive basic emotions is innate. However, a new study published in the June 18 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that experience can alter the way people see emotions.

Led by University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist Seth Pollak, the study examined how children categorize facial expressions as happy, sad, angry or fearful based on one particular emotional experience - physical abuse. Studying children who had been abused, Pollak says, offered an opportunity both to examine the effects of atypical experience on how children think about emotions and to possibly identify new interventions that could help abused children more effectively manage resulting behavioral problems.

For this study, Pollak invited both abused and non-abused children, 8 to 10 years old, to his Child Emotion Research Laboratory. There, they played computer "games" that presented digitally morphed photos of facial expressions that ranged from either happy to fearful, happy to sad, angry to fearful or angry to sad. While some of the faces expressed a single emotion, most were blends of two emotions.

In one of the games, the children saw a single face and had to choose which emotion it expressed the most. Because many images were a composite of emotions, this task allowed the researchers to determine how the children perceived different expressions.

Pollak, along with colleague Doris Kistler from the Waisman Center, a national center dedicated to advancing knowledge about human development, found that the two groups of children did categorize emotional expressions differently. While both abused and non-abused children generally responded the same way to expressions showing mostly happiness, sadness or fear, abused children identified more faces as being "angry," rather than fearful or s

Contact: Seth Pollak
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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