Increasing verbal knowledge mediates development of multidimensional emotion representations

Erik C. Nook, Stephanie F. Sasse, Hilary K. Lambert, Katie A. McLaughlin, Leah H. Somerville

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

89 Scopus citations


How do people represent their own and others' emotional experiences? Contemporary emotion theories and growing evidence suggest that the conceptual representation of emotion plays a central role in how people understand the emotions both they and other people feel 1-6. Although decades of research indicate that adults typically represent emotion concepts as multidimensional, with valence (positive-negative) and arousal (activating-deactivating) as two primary dimensions 7-10, little is known about how this bidimensional (or circumplex) representation arises 11. Here we show that emotion representations develop from a monodimensional focus on valence to a bidimensional focus on both valence and arousal from age 6 to age 25. We investigated potential mechanisms underlying this effect and found that increasing verbal knowledge mediated the development of emotion representation over and above three other potential mediators: fluid reasoning, the general ability to represent non-emotional stimuli bidimensionally and task-related behaviours (for example, using extreme ends of rating scales). These results indicate that verbal development aids the expansion of emotion concept representations (and potentially emotional experiences) from a 'positive or negative' dichotomy in childhood to a multidimensional organization in adulthood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)881-889
Number of pages9
JournalNature Human Behaviour
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Social Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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