Children's scripts for social emotions: Causes and consequences are more central than are facial expressions


Correspondence should be addressed to Dr Sherri C. Widen, Department of Psychology, Boston College, McGuinn Hall, 140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, USA (e-mail:


Understanding and recognition of emotions relies on emotion concepts, which are narrative structures (scripts) specifying facial expressions, causes, consequences, label, etc. organized in a temporal and causal order. Scripts and their development are revealed by examining which components better tap which concepts at which ages. This study investigated whether a facial expression or a brief story describing an emotion's cause and consequence was the stronger cue to basic-level and social emotions. Children (N =120, 4–10 years) freely labelled the emotion implied by faces and, separately, stories for six basic-level emotions (happiness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt) and three social emotions (embarrassment, compassion, and shame). Cause-and-consequence stories were the stronger cue overall, especially for fear, disgust, and social emotions. Faces were the stronger cue only for surprise. Younger children assimilated social emotions into basic-level emotion categories (sadness and anger); older children differentiated them. Differentiation occurred earlier for stories than for faces.