My research investigates how children’s emotion concepts change in the preschool and early grade school years. My broader interest is the nature of concepts, where they come from, and how they change with development. In studying emotion concepts and categories such as love, anger, and disgust, and how children’s understanding of such emotions change, I can study real world, natural concepts rather than artificial ones. Traditionally, it has been assumed that children’s knowledge of emotion was based on some early exposure to facial expressions and understanding of them in terms of discrete emotions. Many of my findings have been contrary to this view showing that children’s early understanding of emotion, including facial expressions, is broad and valence-based (feels good vs. feels bad) and that facial expression are not strong cues to emotion for children.
My research has branched into three areas. The first area focuses on a Differentiation Model of children’s understanding of emotion (Widen & Russell, 2003), in which preschoolers’ begin with a small number of broad emotion categories; with time and experience the early categories narrow as other categories are acquired in a systematic order. The second area focuses on how effectively children use different cues (facial expressions, labels, causes, behavioral consequences) to categorize emotion (Widen & Russell, 2004). And the third area focuses on children’s understanding of a specific individual emotion concept, (filial) love, and shows that children do not consider the broader context (family members’ love for each other) in the heat of a current emotion (Widen, in prep).