Very few large-scale studies have focused on emotional facial expression recognition (FER) in 3-year-olds, an age of rapid social and language development. We studied FER in 808 healthy 3-year-olds using verbal and nonverbal computerized tasks for four basic emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, and fear). Three-year-olds showed differential performance on the verbal and nonverbal FER tasks, especially with respect to fear. That is to say, fear was one of the most accurately recognized facial expressions as matched nonverbally and the least accurately recognized facial expression as labeled verbally. Sex did not influence emotion-matching nor emotion-labeling performance after adjusting for basic matching or labeling ability. Three-year-olds made systematic errors in emotion-labeling. Namely, happy expressions were often confused with fearful expressions, whereas negative expressions were often confused with other negative expressions. Together, these findings suggest that 3-year-olds' FER skills strongly depend on task specifications. Importantly, fear was the most sensitive facial expression in this regard. Finally, in line with previous studies, we found that recognized emotion categories are initially broad, including emotions of the same valence, as reflected in the nonrandom errors of 3-year-olds.

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Keywords Children, Development, Emotions, Facial expression recognition (FER)
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Székely, E., Tiemeier, H., Arends, L.R., Jaddoe, V.W.V., Hofman, A., Verhulst, F.C., & Herba, C.M.. (2011). Recognition of facial expressions of emotions by 3-year-olds. Emotion, 11(2), 425–435. doi:10.1037/a0022587