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Nat Hum Behav. 2017;1:881-889. doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0238-7. Epub 2017 Nov 27.

Increasing verbal knowledge mediates development of multidimensional emotion representations.

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Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.
Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.


How do people represent their own and others' emotional experiences? Contemporary emotion theories and growing evidence suggest that the conceptual representation of emotion plays a central role in how people understand the emotions both they and other people feel.1-6 Although decades of research indicate that adults typically represent emotion concepts as multidimensional, with valence (positive-negative) and arousal (activating-deactivating) as two primary dimensions,7-10 little is known about how this bidimensional (or circumplex) representation arises.11 Here we show that emotion representations develop from a monodimensional focus on valence to a bidimensional focus on both valence and arousal from age 6 to age 25. We investigated potential mechanisms underlying this effect and found that increasing verbal knowledge mediated emotion representation development over and above three other potential mediators: (i) fluid reasoning, (ii) the general ability to represent non-emotional stimuli bidimensionally, and (iii) task-related behaviors (e.g., using extreme ends of rating scales). These results suggest that verbal development facilitates the expansion of emotion concept representations (and potentially emotional experiences) from a "positive or negative" dichotomy in childhood to a multidimensional organization in adulthood.


Emotion; development; emotion concepts; multidimensional scaling; verbal knowledge

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