Three- and Six-Year-Old Children are Sensitive to Natural Body Expressions of Emotion: An ERP Emotional Priming Study

Han Ke, Quoc Vuong, Elena Geangu

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Body movements provide a rich source of emotional information during social interactions. Although the ability to perceive biological-motion cues related to those movements begins to develop in infancy, processing those cues to identify emotions likely continues to develop into childhood. Previous studies use posed or exaggerated body movements, which may not reflect the kind of body expressions children experience. The present study used an event-related potential (ERP) priming paradigm to investigate the development of emotion recognition from more naturalistic body movements. Point-light displays of male adult bodies expressing happy or angry emotional movements while narrating a story were used as prime stimuli, while audio recordings of the words “happy” and “angry” spoken with an emotionally neutral prosody were used as targets. We recorded the ERPs time-locked to the onset of the auditory target from 3- and 6-year-old children, and compared amplitude and latency of the N300 and N400 responses between the two age groups in the different prime-target conditions. There was an overall effect of prime for the N300 amplitude, with more negative-going responses for happy compared to angry PLDs. There was also an interaction between prime and target for the N300 latency, suggesting that all children were sensitive to the emotional congruency between body movements and words. For the N400 component, there was only an interaction between age, prime and target for latency, suggesting an age-dependent modulation of this component when prime and target did not match in emotional information. Overall, our results suggest that the emergence of more complex emotion processing of body expressions occurs around 6 years of age, but it is not fully developed at this point in ontogeny.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105497
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date16 Jul 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2022

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