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Increasing verbal knowledge mediates development of multidimensional emotion representations


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 feel1,2,3,4,5,6. Although decades of research indicate that adults typically represent emotion concepts as multidimensional, with valence (positive–negative) and arousal (activating–deactivating) as two primary dimensions7,8,9,10, little is known about how this bidimensional (or circumplex) representation arises11. 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 the development of emotion representation over and above three other potential mediators: fluid reasoning, the general ability to represent non-emotional stimuli bidimensionally and task-related behaviours (for example, using extreme ends of rating scales). These results indicate that verbal development aids the expansion of emotion concept representations (and potentially emotional experiences) from a ‘positive or negative’ dichotomy in childhood to a multidimensional organization in adulthood.

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Fig. 1: Schematics for the semantic similarities and perceptual similarities tasks.
Fig. 2: Visual depiction of sample-level emotion representation and changes in emotion representation across age.
Fig. 3: Changes in emotion representation across age.
Fig. 4: Results of robust bootstrapped mediation analyses examining potential mediators of emotion concept development.


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We thank C. R. M. Bolden, A. Dews, E. Fearey, M. Garrad, T. Gogue-Garcia, K. Kent, A. Sareen, M. Sirak, T. Stacy, C. Stavish and C. Uhrig for assistance with data collection; J. Snedeker for discussion; and P. Mair and members of Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science for guidance on statistical analyses. This work was supported by a Harvard University seed grant to L.H.S., a National Institutes of Mental Health grant to K.A.M. (R01-MH103291), and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (grant DGE1144152) to E.C.N. Funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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Authors collaboratively developed the study design. E.C.N. programmed computer tasks. E.C.N., S.F.S. and H.K.L. collected data. E.C.N. analysed data. E.C.N. and L.H.S. interpreted results. E.C.N. drafted the manuscript, and all other authors provided critical revisions. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Erik C. Nook.

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Nook, E.C., Sasse, S.F., Lambert, H.K. et al. Increasing verbal knowledge mediates development of multidimensional emotion representations. Nat Hum Behav 1, 881–889 (2017).

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