Children's understanding of display rules for emotionally expressive behavior
Hess, Debra L. R.
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The present study explored children's understanding of display rules for emotional expression. This investigation was the first to explore children's beliefs about the differences in emotional masking through verbal expression and facial expression. In addition, the study furthered the exploration of children's understanding of motives to employ a displav rule (i.e., prosocial or self-protective). Children of four grade levels (first, third, fifth, and tenth) were interviewed about a variety of brief interpersonal conflict stories. The children were asked to predict and explain the verbal and facial expressions of the story character. The study utilized three story versions. In one version, the story character was removed from the presence of others, and thus a display rule was not necessary. This "alone" version provided an assessment of whether children at each age level understood the salient aspects of the story. In the other two versions, the story character was in the presence of others and thus a display rule may be utilized. These "audience" versions differed in that one version gave a prompt to use a display rule. The results indicated that children more readily mask emotion through verbal expression than through facial expression. When prompted to employ a display rule, only 60 percent of the responses of the oldest children reflected facial masking of emotion. It was suggested that these older subjects did not believe that successful facial masking was likely to occur. The results indicated that children have greater understanding of display rules which serve to protect the feelings of another (i.e., for prosocial reasons) over display rules which serve to protect the self. The highest proportion ot responses reflecting a display rule occurred in the verbal expression to the prosocial stories when the children were told that the story characters wanted to hide their feelings. However, without the prompt, children's verbal masking of emotion for prosocial reasons did not differ from that for self-protective reasons. For the facial expression, children gave a higher proportion of display rules for prosocial reasons over self-protective reasons. It was suggested that there is greater social pressure on children to regulate their emotional expressions in order to protect the feelings of another.