Influences of Witnessed Affect on Information Processing in Children


  • This research was supported by NIMH grant no. 5 R01 MH39095 and NSF grant no. BNS 9021221. We would like to express our appreciation to Hal Kopeikin and Jeff Lewis who provided the programming assistance needed for this study as well as substantive contributions throughout the project. The senior author is also heavily indebted to John Cacioppo and Lou Tassinary for the invaluable experience and training provided by the NSF-sponsored Social Psychophysiology Program (they, of course, have no culpability for potential errors contained in this paper).

concerning this article should be addressed to Daphne Bugental, Department of Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106.


Children between the ages of 5 and 10 years watched a videotape of a child having a routine medical exam. Embedded within the scenes were systematic variations of depicted facial affect shown by doctor and child. Measures were taken of autonomic reactions and information-processing errors in response to positive, neutral, and negative affective cues. For 5–6-year-olds, processing errors were greatest in the negative affect condition. Additionally, peak increases in heart rate (HR) and skin conductance level (SCL) were demonstrated by 5–6-year-olds in response to negative affect shown by the witnessed child; increases in HR were in turn predictive of processing errors. Older children (9–10 years) showed trends reflecting reduced processing errors in response to witnessed negative affect. It was suggested that younger children respond to salient threat cues with a “defensive” response pattern that is relatively adaptive at younger but not older ages.