Mapping the development of facial expression recognition

Helen Rodger, Luca Vizioli, Xinyi Ouyang, Roberto Caldara

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


Reading the non-verbal cues from faces to infer the emotional states of others is central to our daily social interactions from very early in life. Despite the relatively well-documented ontogeny of facial expression recognition in infancy, our understanding of the development of this critical social skill throughout childhood into adulthood remains limited. To this end, using a psychophysical approach we implemented the QUEST threshold-seeking algorithm to parametrically manipulate the quantity of signals available in faces normalized for contrast and luminance displaying the six emotional expressions, plus neutral. We thus determined observers' perceptual thresholds for effective discrimination of each emotional expression from 5 years of age up to adulthood. Consistent with previous studies, happiness was most easily recognized with minimum signals (35% on average), whereas fear required the maximum signals (97% on average) across groups. Overall, recognition improved with age for all expressions except happiness and fear, for which all age groups including the youngest remained within the adult range. Uniquely, our findings characterize the recognition trajectories of the six basic emotions into three distinct groupings: expressions that show a steep improvement with age - disgust, neutral, and anger; expressions that show a more gradual improvement with age - sadness, surprise; and those that remain stable from early childhood - happiness and fear, indicating that the coding for these expressions is already mature by 5 years of age. Altogether, our data provide for the first time a fine-grained mapping of the development of facial expression recognition. This approach significantly increases our understanding of the decoding of emotions across development and offers a novel tool to measure impairments for specific facial expressions in developmental clinical populations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)926-939
Number of pages14
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2015


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