The eyes know it: Toddlers' visual scanning of sad faces is predicted by their theory of mind skills

Diane Poulin-Dubois, Paul Hastings, Sabrina Chiarella, Elena Geangu, Petra Hauf, Alexa Ruel, Aaron Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The current research explored toddlers’ gaze fixation during a scene showing a person expressing sadness after a ball is stolen from her. The relation between the duration of gaze fixation on different parts of the person’s sad face (e.g., eyes, mouth) and theory of mind skills was examined. Eye tracking data indicated that before the actor experienced the negative event, toddlers divided their fixation equally between the actor’s happy face and other distracting objects, but looked longer at the face after the ball was stolen and she expressed sadness. The strongest predictor of increased focus on the sad face versus other elements of the scene was toddlers’ ability to predict others’ emotional reactions when outcomes fulfilled (happiness) or failed to fulfill (sadness) desires, whereas toddlers’ visual perspective- taking skills predicted their more specific focusing on the actor’s eyes and, for boys only, mouth. Furthermore, gender differences emerged in toddlers’ fixation on parts of the scene. Taken together, these findings suggest that top-down processes are involved in the scanning of emotional facial expressions in toddlers.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPLOS one
Publication statusPublished - 6 Dec 2018

Bibliographical note

© 2018 Poulin-Dubois et al.

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