New research: Kids tune in to smiles, not frowns

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Photo: Christopher Michel via Wikimedia Commons

Striving to get your kids’ attention? Try cracking a smile. Children are more attuned to happy faces than angry faces—while young adults are more attuned to angry expressions. That’s the surprising finding of a new research study from UBC’s Department of Psychology.

The results challenge a common assumption that children would show the same pattern as adults. “Many of us had thought that, from an evolutionary perspective, there’s an advantage to being tuned toward threats and negative information, and that kids would show this,” said Rebecca Todd, the study’s co-author. “But our research shows that this isn’t necessarily so. Surprisingly, there may be some advantage to attending to positive information—like a smile.”

Researchers asked 54 young children aged five to seven and 54 young adults aged 18 to 29 to rate the intensity of happy and angry expressions in images, as well as their own reactions to the images. The young children perceived smiling faces as more intense, and also had stronger reactions to them compared to images of angry faces. Results from the young adults, on the other hand, showed the opposite effect—which is consistent with previous research in the field.

Rebecca Todd

Rebecca Todd

Todd and her colleagues are planning to explore why children show this pattern. They believe it may have something to do with the environment in which kids are brought up and are currently investigating this theory.

“In North American culture we really give a lot of positive reinforcement to our kids,” noted Todd. “We have less of a tendency to reprimand. We think something in family environments is making positive information more informative.”

Tuning to the Positive: Age-Related Differences in Subjective Perception of Facial Emotion” appears in PLOS ONE. A portion of the study took place at UBC’s Living Laboratory in Science World in Vancouver. The study co-authors include Rochelle Picardo and Prof. Prof. Andrew Baron of UBC Psychology, and Adam Anderson from Cornell University.

This media release was originally posted on UBC News.