Do children throughout the world value feeling happy and excited? Or are these emotions susceptible to large cultural influences that dictate how children should want to feel?
In a groundbreaking series of studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Stanford psychologist Jeanne Tsai examined how children’s cultural background could impact their preferences for different emotions. Prior research with adults has shown that European-Americans value positive emotions to a considerable extent. By contrast, Taiwanese adults place a greater importance on calmness. Would these same patterns be observed in young children?
Tsai and her colleagues asked preschoolers to look at two faces. One face had a big, wide smile while the other had a smaller smile. Children were asked, “Which smile would you rather be?” Next, the children were read a short story about characters that either liked to do such things as “jumping and splashing in the pool” or “sitting and floating on an inner tube in the pool.”
The results showed that children from European-American cultural backgrounds valued the big smile more than the Taiwanese children did. They also preferred the characters that were more “excited” in the pool, while the Taiwanese children showed exactly the opposite pattern.
Since the research showed that children from these cultural contexts do in fact show distinct preferences for different emotions, the researchers then looked at many of the most popular storybooks from these two cultural contexts. The results showed that Taiwanese storybooks had significantly more “calm” faces than American storybooks, which tended to have more “excited” faces among the characters.
Could it be possible that these storybooks are one of the reasons for children’s own preferences? In the last part of the study, Tsai’s research team read storybooks about either an “excited” character or “calm” character. Afterwards, Tsai had children state their preferences for excitement or calmness. The results showed when children are exposed to this kind of cultural material, they start inferring that what happened in the story is the “right way to be.”
Overall, Tsai and her colleagues note that “these findings not only demonstrate that cultural differences in ideal emotion emerge early in life, but also identify a specific pathway through which emotional values are culturally transmitted and learned.”
Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.