Thinking about the Past: Early Knowledge about Links between Prior Experience, Thinking, and Emotion



In two studies the authors investigated the situations where 3- to 7-year-olds and adults (N = 152) will connect a person's current feelings to the past, especially to thinking or being reminded about a prior experience. Study 1 presented stories featuring a target character who felt sad, mad, or happy after an event in the past and who many days later felt that same negative or positive emotion upon seeing a cue related to the prior incident. For some story endings, the character's emotion upon seeing the cue matched, or was congruent, with the current situation, whereas for others, the emotion mismatched the present circumstances. Participants were asked to explain the cause of each character's current feelings. As a further comparison, children and adults listened to behavior cuing stories and provided explanations for characters' present actions. Study 2 presented emotional scenarios that varied by emotion-situation fit (whether the character's emotion matched the current situation), person-person fit (whether the character's emotion matched another person's), and past history information (whether information about the character's past was known). Results showed that although there were several significant developments with increasing age, even most 3-year-olds demonstrated some knowledge about connections between past events and present emotions and between thinking and feeling. Indeed, children 5 years and younger revealed strikingly cogent understanding about historical-mental influences in certain situations, especially where they had to explain why a person, who had experienced a negative event in the past, was currently feeling sad or mad in a positive situation. These findings help underwrite a more general account of the development of children's coherent understandings of life history, mind, and emotion.