Charting the development of emotion comprehension and abstraction from childhood to adulthood using observer-rated and linguistic measures

Erik C. Nook, Caitlin M. Stavish, Stephanie F. Sasse, Hilary K. Lambert, Patrick Mair, Katie A. McLaughlin, Leah H. Somerville

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


This study examined two facets of emotion development: emotion word comprehension (knowing the meaning of emotion words such as "anger" or "excitement") and emotion concept abstraction (representing emotions in terms of internal psychological states that generalize across situations). Using a novel emotion vocabulary assessment, we captured how a cross-sectional sample of participants aged 4-25 (N = 196) defined 24 emotions. Smoothing spline regression models suggested that emotion comprehension followed an emergent shape: Knowledge of emotion words increased across childhood and plateaued around age 11. Human coders rated the abstractness of participants' responses, and these ratings also followed an emergent shape but plateaued significantly later than comprehension, around age 18. An automated linguistic analysis of abstractness supported coders' perceptions of increased abstractness across age. Finally, coders assessed the definitional strategies participants used to describe emotions. Young children tended to describe emotions using concrete strategies such as providing example situations that evoked those emotions or by referring to physiological markers of emotional experiences. Whereas use of these concrete strategies decreased with age, the tendency to use more abstract strategies such as providing general definitions that delineated the causes and characteristics of emotions or by providing synonyms of emotion words increased with age. Overall, this work (a) provides a tool for assessing definitions of emotion terms, (b) demonstrates that emotion concept abstraction increases across age, and (c) suggests that adolescence is a period in which emotion words are comprehended but their level of abstraction continues to mature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)773-792
Number of pages20
Issue number5
StatePublished - Aug 2020
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology


  • Abstraction
  • Development
  • Emotion
  • Language


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