The Role of Person Familiarity in Young Infants' Perception of Emotional Expressions



This research investigated the role of person familiarity in the ability of 3.5-month-old infants to recognize emotional expressions. Infants (N= 72) were presented simultaneously with two filmed facial expressions, happy and sad, accompanied by a single vocal expression that was concordant with one of the two facial expressions. Infants' looking preferences and facial expressions were coded. Results indicated that when the emotional expressions were portrayed by each infant's own mother, infants looked significantly longer toward the facial expressions that were accompanied by affectively matching vocal expressions. Infants who were presented with emotional expressions of an unfamiliar woman did not. Even when a brief delay was inserted between the presentation of facial and vocal expressions, infants who were presented with emotional expressions of their own mothers looked longer at the facial expression that was sound specified, indicating that some factor other than temporal synchrony guided their looking preferences. When infants viewed the films of their own mothers, they were more interactive and expressed more positive and less negative affect. Moreover, infants produced a greater number of full and bright smiles when the sound-specified emotion was “happy,” and particularly when they viewed the happy expressions of their own mothers. The average duration of negative affect was significantly longer for infants who observed the unfamiliar woman than for those who observed their own mothers. These results show that when more contextual information—that is, person familiarity —was available, infants as young as 3.5 months of age recognized happy and sad expressions. These findings suggest that in the early stages of development, infants are sensitive to contextual information that potentially facilitates some of the meaning of others' emotional expressions.