Category Archives: emotions

Susan Gelman on children’s preference for unique owned objects

Gelman, S. A., & Davidson, N. S. (2016). Young children’s preference for unique owned objects. Cognition.

This is an incredible and profound study on children’s attachment to objects, with implications both for cognitive and emotional development. It’s also a study that amazes me for the amount of work it required from researchers (who had to find brand-new replicas of more than 100 children’s attachment objects).

The experimental design is quite simple. Researchers asked 36 three-year-olds to choose between two toys for either themselves or the researcher: an old (visibly used) toy vs. a new (more attractive) toy matched in type and appearance (e.g., old vs brand-new blanket). Focal pairs contrasted an old toy that belonged to the child with a matched new object; control pairs contrasted toys the child had never seen before.

The conclusion of the study is that, by 3 years of age, young children place special value on unique owned objects. Children prefer their original objects to newer, better versions, but only in the case of the focal pairs (with their objects of attachment) and not with the control pairs (objects the child had never seen before). These findings are consistent with the view that possessions are extensions of the self.

In addition, these preferences hold for “sleep” objects (blanket, pillow) and toys representing an animated character (dolls, action figures) but not for inanimate objects (a car, a toy hammer, etc.) Uniqueness is valued for sleep objects and animate toys, but not for inanimate toys. Moreover, in 30 out of 31 cases, attachment objects had a proper name. Ownership, attachment and anthropomorphism (eyes, animated features, soft or furry texture) all combine to enhance children’s preferences for their own objects.

In addition, children seemed to understand that their special objects had value for them only in so far as they share a history with the object. That is, they did not attribute the researcher the same preference for the old (attachement) object. In this sense, they seem to understand the subjective nature of value.

The results are remarkable, among other things, because of the understanding of the abstract ownership relationships, the distinction between appearance and reality and the perspective-taking abilities involved in children’s responses. The authors also emphasize how attuned any child can be to minor features of an object that indicate that it is her unique object and not a substitute.

These findings also offer a different (experimental, cognitive) perspective on the phenomenon of “transitional objects,” first described by Donald Winnicott in the 1950s.

A remarkable study indeed.

Ekman on emotions

Ekman, P. (1984). Expression and the Nature of Emotion. In Approaches to emotion.

I plan to read and write more about emotions, as I am interested in the topic of self-possession vs. being possessed (or overwhelmed) by emotions. I wonder whether the use of ownership-related terms in this field is metaphorical, or rather points to a fundamental aspect of human experience: the fact that one must first possess oneself (one’s own body and actions) in order to possess other things. Many philosophers (Locke comes to mind, but also Hegel and Aristotle) have drawn this relationship between self-possession (or self-governance, being master of oneself) and personhood (being an agent in the world with the capacity to possess and own stuff).

In this article (a classic), Ekman distinguishes emotions from other reactions (mainly reflexes) and other affective phenomena, such as moods, emotional traits and affective disorders.

He also establishes 10 main characteristics of emotion:

  1. There is a distinctive pan-cultural signal for each emotion.
  2. There are distinctive, universal, facial expressions of emotion that can also be traced phylogenetically.
  3. Emotional expression involves multiple signals.
  4. The duration of emotion is limited.
  5. The timing of emotional expression reflects the details of a particular emotional experience.
  6. Emotional expression can be graded in intensity, reflecting variations in the strength of the subjective experience.
  7. Emotional expression can be totally inhibited.
  8. Emotional expressions can be convincingly simulated.
  9. Each emotion has pan-human commonalities in its elicitors.
  10. Each emotion has a pan-human pattern of the autonomous nervous system (ANS) and central nervous system (CNS) change.