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Background The paper explored emotion comprehension in children with regard to facial expression of emotion. The effect of valence and arousal evaluation, of context and of psychophysiological measures was monitored. Indeed subjective evaluation of valence (positive vs. negative) and arousal (high vs. low), and contextual (facial expression vs. facial expression and script) variables were supposed to modulate the psychophysiological responses. Methods Self-report measures (in terms of correct recognition, arousal and valence attribution) and psychophysiological correlates (facial electromyography, EMG, skin conductance response, SCR, and heart rate, HR) were observed when children (N = 26; mean age = 8.75 y; range 6-11 y) looked at six facial expressions of emotions (happiness, anger, fear, sadness, surprise, and disgust) and six emotional scripts (contextualized facial expressions). The competencies about the recognition, the evaluation on valence and arousal was tested in concomitance with psychophysiological variations. Specifically, we tested for the congruence of these multiple measures. Results Log-linear analysis and repeated measure ANOVAs showed different representations across the subjects, as a function of emotion. Specifically, children’ recognition and attribution were well developed for some emotions (such as anger, fear, surprise and happiness), whereas some other emotions (mainly disgust and sadness) were less clearly represented. SCR, HR and EMG measures were modulated by the evaluation based on valence and arousal, with increased psychophysiological values mainly in response to anger, fear and happiness. Conclusions As shown by multiple regression analysis, a significant consonance was found between self-report measures and psychophysiological behavior, mainly for emotions rated as more arousing and negative in valence. The multilevel measures were discussed at light of dimensional attribution model.
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R E S E A R C H Open Access
Multilevel analysis of facial expressions of
emotion and script: self-report (arousal and
valence) and psychophysiological correlates
Michela Balconi
*
, Maria Elide Vanutelli and Roberta Finocchiaro
Abstract
Background: The paper explored emotion comprehension in children with regard to facial expression of emotion.
The effect of valence and arousal evaluation, of context and of psychophysiological measures was monitored.
Indeed subjective evaluation of valence (positive vs. negative) and arousal (high vs. low), and contextual (facial
expression vs. facial expression and script) variables were supposed to modulate the psychophysiological responses.
Methods: Self-report measures (in terms of correct recognition, arousal and valence attribution) and
psychophysiological correlates (facial electromyography, EMG, skin conductance response, SCR, and heart rate, HR)
were observed when children (N = 26; mean age = 8.75 y; range 6-11 y) looked at six facial expressions of emotions
(happiness, anger, fear, sadness, surprise, and disgust) and six emotional scripts (contextualized facial expressions).
The competencies about the recognition, the evaluation on valence and arousal was tested in concomitance with
psychophysiological variations. Specifically, we tested for the congruence of these multiple measures.
Results: Log-linear analysis and repeated measure ANOVAs showed different representations across the subjects, as
a function of emotion. Specifically, childrenrecognition and attribution were well developed for some emotions
(such as anger, fear, surprise and happiness), whereas some other emotions (mainly disgust and sadness) were less
clearly represented. SCR, HR and EMG measures were modulated by the evaluation based on valence and arousal,
with increased psychophysiological values mainly in response to anger, fear and happiness.
Conclusions: As shown by multiple regression analysis, a significant consonance was found between self-report
measures and psychophysiological behavior, mainly for emotions rated as more arousing and negative in valence.
The multilevel measures were discussed at light of dimensional attribution model.
Keywords: Facial expression of emotion, EMG, Valence, Psychophysiology
Introduction
In the last two decades, developmental psychology has
seen an increasing interest in the study of emotion com-
prehension. Specifically, emotional face recognition and
understanding represent a primary social competence,
because they contribute to social interactions and social
management [1]. These competencies are related to gen-
eral cognitive functions and it was shown that language
was the most important predictor of nonverbal emotion
recognition ability [2]. Indeed both gender and verbal
skills are important predictors of childrens emotional
awareness [3].
More specifically, Bullock and Russell [4] proposed a
model in which children acquire a system to represent
and classify emotions which is based on a limited num-
ber of wide categories. The most important of them are
the two dimensional axes of the hedonic value and the
arousal level. This model was tested by some empirical
studies which found that firstly children interpret facial
expressions in terms of pleasure-displeasure (bipolar he-
donic value) and intensity (arousal level). Only successively
they use more articulated and wider conceptual categories
[5,6]. To verify the type of categorization applied to the
emotional domain, affective responses organized around
* Correspondence: michela.balconi@unicatt.it
Research Unit in Affective and Social Neuroscience, Department of
Psychology, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan Largo Gemelli, 1,
20123 Milan, Italy
© 2014 Balconi et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly credited. The Creative Commons Public Domain
Dedication waiver (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article,
unless otherwise stated.
Balconi et al. Behavioral and Brain Functions 2014, 10:32
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the arousal and valence dimension include subjective
experience, often measured using self-report responses to
affective stimuli. At this regard, Self-Assessment Manikin
(SAM) was used to test this subjective emotional correlates
[7]. It was also demonstrated that age, facial expression in-
tensity and emotion category are important for predicting
accuracy on emotion-processing tasks [8].
Previous results demonstrate how task type and chil-
drens mood influence childrens emotion processing [9].
Indeed, in order to explain this developmental process,
the type of emotions children have to recognize is a first
main factor related to decoding competencies [10]. More
generally, in line with Russells model of emotional ex-
perience, emotion fundamentally varies activation in
centrally organized appetitive and aversive motivational
systems that have evolved to mediate the wide range of
adaptive behaviors necessary for an organism struggling
to survive in the physical world [11-13]. Most pleasant
affects are held to be associated with the appetitive mo-
tivation system; unpleasant affects with defensive motiv-
ation [14]. Thus, a primary distinction among emotional
events is whether they are appetitive or aversive, positive
or negative, pleasant or unpleasant, which clearly relates
to the motivational parameter of direction. Secondly, all
agree that hedonically valenced events differ in the de-
gree of to which they arouse or engage action, which is
related to intensity parameter. Emotional intensity prob-
ably reflects the strength of activation in motivational sys-
tems subserving appetitive and defensive behaviors and, as
such, has impact on the type of physiological response. In-
tensity was conceptualized as predator imminence,or
the distance of the threatening pattern from the subject
[15] or in terms of distance from an aversive or appetitive
goal [16]. More generally, arousal in humans appears to
reflect the degree to which a stimulus elicits appropriate
appetitive or defensive behaviors. Thus, the two dimen-
sions of pleasure and arousal explain the majority of the
emotional experience and subjective judgment, and the in-
creased perception of emotional significance of a stimulus
in term of valence may increase the perception of its
arousing power [17].
Secondly, it should be noted that young subjects showed
to be competent in the decoding of the primary or simple
emotions (e.g. happiness and anger), but they have more
difficulties in processing secondary or complex emotions,
such as pride and embarrassment [18-20]. To identify
these emotions more time and more informational cues
must be analyzed. Moreover, as regard to the secondary
emotions or emotions developed only later during the de-
velopmental phases, a more accentuated difficulty in un-
derstanding causal antecedents (the events that caused the
emotion expressed by face) and contextual relations (the
social situations in which the emotion is produced)
emerges [21]. Bormann-Kischkel et al. [10] observed a
specific difficulty in understanding the emotions that
present a lack of correspondence between people expecta-
tions and environment events. These emotions have an
external and social origin, such as surprise, dismay, and
astonishment. In parallel, Capps, Yirmiya, and Sigman
[20] observed a greater impairment in recognizing and la-
belling the expression of those emotions that have an ex-
ternal locus of control and, simultaneously, that require a
wide knowledge of the social scripts and of their social
consequences. In line with this hypothesis, Baron-Cohen,
Spitz, and Cross [22] suggested that the comprehension is
more difficult for emotions that imply the activation of
some cognitive functions, such as mentalization and
metarepresentation. In general, previous results provide
evidence for late developmental changes in emotional ex-
pression recognition with some specificity in the time
course for distinct emotions [23]. Indeed it was found that
some emotions, like disgust and sadness, are more often
confused with other primary and early developed emo-
tions, such as anger or fear and they are not spontan-
eously labelled in comparison with other emotions such as
anger, fear or happiness.
Thus, it was also supposed that, through a progressive
process of script generalization, a situatedcomprehension
of emotions arises. The process of emotion categorization
is well illustrated by the use of adequate attribution. Indeed,
emotional labels constitute the final step of a developmental
process that goes through a dimensional attribution
(characterized by the presence of pleasure-displeasure cor-
relate) to a situational attribution(the script representa-
tion). This should be taken into consideration in studying
the development of emotional decoding, because these
competencies seem to be bound not only to cognitive but,
above all, to social and communicative competencies,
which have an influence on emotion conceptualization.
Thus, another main concern is represented by contextual
and situational elements that cause emotion and that might
facilitate or not the emotion processing and comprehension
[24]. As Russell and Widen [25] underlined, in everyday ex-
perience children use facial expressions in order to infer
emotions. On the other hand, the facial cues are always lo-
cated in an interactive context. In other words, it is neces-
sary to take into account the role of a wider socializing
context. Therefore, the concept of emotional context,
considered as a complex and multidimensional representa-
tion of situational events, is relevant in facial expression
processing.
Thirdly, it was observed that behavioral and physio-
logical responses to emotional pictures co-vary with
system evaluation (pleasure/displeasure) and motive in-
tensity (arousal) [26,27]. Psychophysiological responses
are not directly observable, and they include cardiovas-
cular, electrodermal, respiratory measures, etc. It was
underlined that emotion comprehension plays a critical
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role in adaptive behavior, since it promotes survival and
guides human behavior by exerting a direct influence on
brain responsiveness and psychophysiological activities.
Between the others, facial action revealed by EMG meas-
ure (electromyogram), heart rate, and skin conductance
were observed to variate in concomitance of pleasure and
displeasure reports while viewing of emotional patterns.
More specifically, about the psychophysiological mea-
sures, facial behavior using electromyography (EMG)
suggested they were sensitive to the valence dimensions,
with increased corrugator activity in response to unpleas-
ant patterns and zygomatic activity in response to pleasant
patterns. Facial EMG (electromyographic) activity accom-
panies changes in appetitive (positive) and defensive (nega-
tive) activation [28]. Specifically, the corrugator muscle
appears to be responsive of to judgment of unpleasant
event compared to neutral pictures [27]. Many studies
found a consistent and significant relationship between
corrugator and hedonic valence, with greater corrugator
activity elicited when viewing the most unpleasant stimuli
[29]. Moreover, Bradley, Codisposti, Sabatinelli, and Lang
[30] showed that pictures that produce disgust (for ex-
ample mutilation), that were higher in arousal, prompt lar-
ger changes than other unpleasant pictures.
Other physiological measures of emotional behavior in-
clude heart rate (HR), with observed increased HR acceler-
ation to pleasant patterns and increased HR deceleration to
unpleasant patterns [30]. Moreover, investigations exploring
cardiovascular activity in emotion perception assessed vari-
ations as a function of differences in stimulus intensity, as
this variable was revealed critical in eliciting orienting or
defense response [27,30-32]. Low-intensity stimuli were
found to relate with heart rate deceleration, whereas intense
stimuli were observed to activate defense responses associ-
ated with heart rate acceleration [33-36]. Nevertheless, also
contrasting results were collected, since heart initially de-
celerated, rather than accelerated, when people viewed
pictures of unpleasant emotional events, contrary to the no-
tions that these aversive stimuli might prompt defensive
heart rate acceleration [27,30,37]. However, different experi-
mental paradigms were adopted in previous research and,
in some cases, no direct comparison can be conducted be-
tween them.
Moreover, it was found electrodermal activity (Skin
Conductance Response, SCR) consistently varies with
emotional intensity, with larger responses elicited in either
unpleasant and pleasant context and that are more
pronounced in those that are rated as highly arousing
[27,38,39]. Thus, also electrodermal reactions increase
with increases in defensive or appetitive activation [30,37].
In general, it was found increased skin conductance when
people view pictures rated as emotional, compared to neu-
tral, regardless they are rated pleasant or unpleasant in he-
donic valence [27]. However, when hedonic valence and
emotional arousal were co-varied, skin conductance re-
sponses were largest for highly arousing stimuli, irrespect-
ive of hedonic valence [40], consistent with the notion
that these reactions primarily reflect differences in emo-
tional arousal, rather than hedonic valence per se.
About these psychophysiological variations in response
to emotions and facial stimuli, an important debate
regards the presence of a coherent response by psycho-
physiological measures in childhood, as it was observed
in adult behavior. Previous research found consistent
patterns of psychophysiological activation also by chil-
dren in response to emotional stimuli [41,42]. Nevertheless,
to verify the coherence of these physiological measures in
young people in response to facial emotional patterns, spe-
cific analysis should be conducted which included both
arousal and valence parameters.
Therefore, emotional behavior manifests within multiple
domains, comprehending conceptual and self-report attri-
bution, autonomic responses (physiological systems), and
the comprehension of contextual components, which all
may have a significant role in this process. However, no
previous study has directly analyzed the relationship
between these multilevel measures, that is self-report
evaluation based on valence and arousal parameters, psy-
chophysiological behavior and contextual cue variability.
The present study was finalized to explore the conver-
gence of these different measures.
In the present research the effect of some main factors,
valence modulation (emotional type) from one hand, and
contextual effect (face alone vs. facial display within a
script), from the other, was considered. Specifically, we
explored their influence on physiological reactivity (auto-
nomic activity) and emotional attribution (self-report
attributional process), which are all relevant to the de-
scription of the emotional responses [26,43]. Thus, the
purpose of this study is to verify the attended psycho-
physiological and attributional responses to emotion vari-
ation, and, secondly, to show that the attributional process
was related to valence and to context modulation.
Previous assumptions should be strengthened by the
following hypotheses:
1) Faces evaluated as more negative or positive in term
of valence and arousing power should elicit more
intense responses, being the subjects more engaged
with the stimulus, whereas neutral stimuli should be
less involving and intense, and, consequently, differ
in affective rating from emotional stimuli. The
interaction effect of these two parameters (i.e.
valence and arousal) is also expected. This would
suggest that effects due to emotional arousal should
be greater for highly unpleasant and pleasant
stimuli, which were rated as slightly more arousing
than stimuli evaluated as less positive/negative [44].
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2) Secondly, HR, EMG, and SCR should show a
modulation in correlation with emotionally relevant,
arousing and pleasant or unpleasant stimuli. We
expected that subjects might be more emotionally
involved by a highly negative or positive and more
arousing stimulus than neutral or low-arousing pic-
tures, and that they might have a more intense psy-
chophysiological activation while viewing a negative
or positive than a neutral pattern when they are also
perceived as more arousing [13]. This should pro-
duce an increased SCR and HR response, and the
modulation of facial EMG. Specifically, we expected
an increased SCR for more positive and negative
emotions, an increased corrugator activity in re-
sponse to negative emotions and an increased zygo-
matic activity in response to positive emotions.
Finally a general higher HR should be expected
mainly for more arousing emotions.
3) Furthermore, we expect that children may have
more difficulties to decode and understand emotions
generally considered as more complex and learned
only successively (such as disgust) rather than
primary basic emotions (such as happiness, anger,
and fear). In particular, we focus our attention on
the representation of the dimensional axes of
hedonic/arousal value, that engenders the
acquisition of a more complex conceptual
representation [5,45]. Thanks to this acquisition it
can be produced the developmental process, that
includes an initial competence in the discrimination
of basic emotional categories and a successive
comprehension of more complex emotional
categories (as disgust or sadness). Thus we supposed
that about these emotions children could have more
difficulty to give a spontaneous attributional correct
attribution (in term of valence and arousal) to the
facial patterns. Secondly they should be less
physiologically responsive to these emotional cues,
based on the intrinsic relationship that we expected
to exist between attributional and
psychophysiological processes.
4) Fourthly, based on the situationalperspective to
explain facial emotion comprehension, we may
suppose that emotion decoding is the result of the
elaboration of multiple emotional cues, among which
facial patterns (facial expressions), behavioral correlates
(the causal bonds between events), as well as specific
contextual factors (eliciting emotional context). The
comparison between two different types of condition
(only a facial expression of an emotion; a facial
expression within an emotional script) allows us to
explore in detail the role of the eliciting context in the
emotion. We suppose that script facilitates subjects
recognition. According to our hypothesis, a script will
function as a facilitation cue to correctly interpret the
whole emotional event. This facilitation should be
mainly more evident for the secondary emotions, as
disgust, because in order to comprehend this emotion,
subjects have to understand some contextual or
externalelements. Finally, this facilitation effect
should be supported by psychophysiological measures,
and in parallel situational cues should support the SCR
increasing (more positive and negative emotions); the
increased corrugator activity in response to negative
emotions, and the increased zygomatic activity in
response to positive emotions.
Method
Participants
The sample includes 26 normal children. Ages varied
from 6 to 11 (M= 8.75; S.D. = 0.78; range = 6-11.5; 15 fe-
males and 11 males). None of them presented cognitive
or linguistic deficits. With regard to cognitive compe-
tencies, children presented a middle-high or high func-
tioning cognitive profile (WAIS-IV FSIQ: M= 87; range:
70-120). No history of psychiatric or neurological impair-
ments was observed for the participants. Indeed two neuro-
psychologists applied a specific semi-structured interview
before the experimental session to test no clinical impair-
ments. The presence of other deficits on the perceptive or
cognitive levels was excluded. Childparents gave informed
written consent to participate in the study by their sons,
and the research was approved by the local ethics commit-
tee (Catholic University Ethic Committee, Department of
Psychology).
Materials
Facial stimuli
The facial stimuli (cardboards black and white 10 cm × 10
cm), which consist of an emotional face of a young boy
showing six emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, dis-
gust and surprise) and one neutral face. The stimulus ma-
terial was selected by Ekman and Friesen database [46].
We have opted for a young actor aged similarly to the ex-
perimental subjects, in order to facilitate the identification
process, which would make easier the recognition task
(Figure 1a).
Emotional scripts
The material consists of 6 pictures (coloured cardboards
10 cm × 15 cm) with an emotional content and one neu-
tral picture (see Figure 1b). Pictures illustrate contextu-
alized situations eliciting the emotional correlates of
happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust
[5,45]. In particular each picture presents a character (a
girl or a boy) in an interactive context (with peers or
adults). In addition, the presence of a clear emotional fa-
cial expression was considered a discriminant stimulus for
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the selection of the pictures. The pertinence of the emo-
tional content for each emotional script, the homogeneity
of the stimuli in terms of cognitive complexity and famil-
iarity were tested in a pre-experimental phase (12 males
and females; 6-11 years). Stimulus homogeneity, intended
as the degree of difficulty in comprehending the situation
represented in the script (clarity of the context and the
represented subjects), and the complexity (number of de-
tails represented) were tested with a 5-points Likert scale.
No significant differences were found between emotions
for homogeneity F(6,11) = 1.18, p= .40; and complexity: F
(6,11) = 1.64, p=.31).
In each phase, first time stimuli were presented simultan-
eously, in order to allow familiarization with the material.
Figure 1 Examples of (a) facial stimuli and (b) emotional scripts.
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In a second assessment, they were presented one at time, in
a random sequence, varying the order of the stimulus
across the participants. Furthermore, to avoid a possible
order effect between the experimental conditions, some
subjects were submitted to face decoding condition and
successively to emotional script condition, whereas other
subjects decoded the stimulus materials in an opposite se-
quence (firstly the emotional script and then the facial
expression).
Procedure
Subjects were told that they had to evaluate some pic-
tures (faces or scenes) based on some rating scales. Self-
Assessment Manikin was used to test the self-report
measures on a nine-point scale hedonic value (positive/
negative) and arousal value of the emotional content
(more/less arousing) [7]. After each presentation of the
stimulus (stimulus presentation duration = 15 sec.) sub-
jects were invited to evaluate it, no longer viewing the
image. During stimulus presentation subjectspsycho-
physiological responses were acquired. Furthermore,
through a half-structured interview grid [47], the experi-
menter invited the child to observe the stimulus set and
to describe the emotional feelings represented (What is
that facial expression?). It was made another focal ques-
tion about the situation illustrated by the pictures
(What happened?). Interviews were audio- and video-
taped and scored verbatim. Three judges examined the
verbal material encoded, in order to analyze specific con-
ceptual categories relatively to the correctness of the verbal
labels (correct recognition). For the first level of analysis, a
correct answer included an explicit emotional label (such
as happiness) or synonymous terms (joy) [47].
Psychophysiological recording procedure
SCR, HR and EMG data reduction
Skin conductance response was measured continuously
with a constant voltage by Biofeedback (Biofeedback
2000, version 7.01). Before the attaching electrodes, the
skin was cleaned with alcohol and slightly abraded. SCR
was recorded from two electrodes placed on the medial
phalanges of the second and third finger of the non-
dominant hand. The sample rate was of 400 Hz. SCRs
elicited by each stimulus were scored manually and de-
fined as the largest increase in conductance in a time
window from 1,500 to 4,000 ms after stimulus presenta-
tion (for the procedure see Amrhein, Muhlberger, Pauli,
& Wiedermann) [48]. Trials with artifacts were excluded
from analysis, whereas trials with no detectable response
were scored as zero. The electrocardiogram was re-
corded using electrodes on the left and right forearms.
Inter-beat intervals of the HR were converted to heart
rate in beats per minute, to detect HR modulation dur-
ing viewing stimuli. Trials with artifacts were excluded
from analysis, whereas trials with no detectable response
were scored as zero. Facial electromyographic (EMG) ac-
tivity in the zygomaticus major and corrugator supercilii
muscle regions were considered. The electrodes (4 mm
diameter Ag/AgCl electrodes), filled with Surgicon elec-
trolyte paste, were positioned over the corrugator and
zygomatic muscles in accordance with guidelines for psy-
chophysiological recording [49,50]. Frequencies of interest
generally ranged from 20 to 400 Hz. Corrugator and zygo-
matic EMG responses were successively scored as the dif-
ference between the mean rectified corrugator/zygomatic
signals present during the presentation of the stimuli and
the mean rectified signals in the 1 s prior to stimulus pres-
entation (baseline measure). A positive value indicates that
the corrugator/zygomatic measures were greater during
the experimental phase than during the baseline phase.
All the data were acquired for the time interval of stimu-
lus presentation (15 sec.) and successively normalized.
The exact synchrony between the stimulus presentation
and the psychophysiological data acquisition was guaran-
teed by the introduction of specific marker by a second ex-
perimenter, simultaneously to the onset of the stimulus
presentation. A successive analysis of the video-taped regis-
tration of the entire experimental session furnished other
checking of this synchrony.
Analysis and results
Self-report measures
The statistical analysis applied to self-report measures in-
cluded two steps: a first step, where log-linear analysis was
applied to correctness of emotional evaluation; a second
step, where repeated measure ANOVAs was applied. Type
I errors associated with inhomogeneity of variance were
controlled by decreasing the degrees of freedom using the
Greenhouse-Geiser epsilon.
A log-linear hierarchical analysis (saturated model) was
applied to subject labeling (correct labelling of emotion)
with factors correctness (correct/incorrect, 2) × condition
(face/script, 2) × emotion (type, 7) variables (see Areni,
Ercolani, Scalisi) [51] (Table 1). In both conditions (emo-
tional face and script), the emotions were largely recog-
nized by the subjects. In fact, they correctly labeled each
emotion (with increased correct recognition more than in-
correct, χ
2
(1, N = 26, 11.38, p .01) independently from
the type of task χ
2
(1, N = 26, 1.21, p = .30). However, emo-
tional type showed significant effect χ
2
(1, N = 26, 8.03,
p.01). Post-hoc comparisons (standardized residuals) re-
vealed that anger, fear, surprise and happiness were better
recognized than disgust, sadness and neutral faces (all
comparisons p .01).
About the valence attribution, ANOVA showed a signifi-
cant emotion (F(6, 25) = 10.30, p .01, ɳ
2
= .38) and emo-
tion × condition effect (F(6, 25) = 9.14, p .01, ɳ
2
= .38)
(Table 1). Post-hoc comparisons (contrast analysis, with
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Bonferroni corrections for multiple comparisons) showed
increased negative valence attribution for anger, fear, sur-
prise and sadness in comparison with happiness and neu-
tral face, as well as happiness was considered as more
positive than the other faces (all comparisons p .01).
Moreover, it was found a more negative attribution for
disgust in the case of script more than face condition
F(1, 25) = 10.79, p .01, ɳ
2
= .40). No other comparison
was statistically significant (all comparisons p .01).
About the arousal attribution it was found a significant
emotion (F(6, 25) = 10.15, p .01, ɳ
2
= .39) and emotion ×
condition effect (F(6, 25) = 9.56, p .01, ɳ
2
= .37). Post-
hoc comparisons showed increased arousal attribution for
anger, fear, and surprise in comparison with happiness and
sadness (all paired comparisons p .01). Moreover all the
emotional faces were considered more arousing than
neutral faces (all paired comparisons p .01). In addition,
about the interaction effect, disgust was found as more
arousing in the case of script than face condition F(1, 25) =
8.09, p .01, ɳ
2
= .33). No other comparison was statisti-
cally significant (all paired comparisons p .01).
Psychophysiological measures
Successively, repeated measure ANOVAs, with two inde-
pendent repeated (within-subjects) factors (condition ×
emotion), were applied to each dependent measure
(SCR; HR; EMG).
SCR
ANOVA showed significant main effect of emotion (F(6,
25) = 9.56, p .01, ɳ
2
= .37). As shown by contrast effects,
anger, fear and surprise revealed increased SCR in com-
parison with happiness, sadness, disgust and neutral stim-
uli. Moreover, disgust and happiness showed higher SCR
than neutral faces (all comparisons p .01) (Figure 2).
HR
ANOVA showed significant main effect of emotion (F
(6, 25) = 10.98, p .01, ɳ
2
= .40). As shown by contrast
analyses, anger, fear surprise and happiness revealed in-
creased HR in comparison with sadness, disgust and
neutral stimuli. Moreover, disgust and sadness showed in-
creased HR than neutral faces (all comparisons p .01)
(Figure 3).
EMG
Zygomatic EMG activity revealed significant differences as
a function of emotion (F(6, 25)= 10.76, p .01, ɳ
2
=.41).
As shown by contrast effects, EMG activity was enhanced
in response to positive stimuli in comparison with nega-
tive and neutral faces (all comparisons p .01). Contrarily,
corrugator EMG activity was increased for negative emo-
tions, respectively anger, fear, and surprise in comparison
with happiness, disgust, sadness and neutral stimuli (all
comparisons p .01) (Figure 4 and 4b).
Regression analysis between valence and arousal ratings
and psychophysiological measures
Distinct stepwise multiple regression analyses were per-
formed for each psychophysiological measure and emo-
tion, considering the mean values for face and script
condition. Predictor variables were arousal and valence
ratings, and predicted variables were EMG, SCR, and HR
amplitude for each emotion. We report in Table 2 the
cumulative multiple correlations between predictor
and predicted variables (R), cumulative proportion of
explained variance (R
2
), and the regression weights (β)for
the regression equation at each step of the multivariate
analysis.
As shown in Table 2, arousal and valence accounted
for the amplitudes of zygomatic muscle for happiness,
whereas mainly arousal rating accounted for corrugator
muscle for anger, fear and surprise. In addition, valence
and arousal explained the HR (increasing) more for
anger, fear, surprise, and happiness. Finally, SCR in-
creased response was mainly explained by the two pre-
dictors for anger, fear, and surprise, and secondly for
disgust and happiness.
Table 1 Self-report measure of correctness (percentage), arousal and valence for each emotion and condition (face and
script)
Self-report rating Anger Fear Suprise Happiness Disgust Sadness Neutral
Face M (sd) M (sd) M (sd) M (sd) M (sd) M (sd) M (sd)
Correctness 89 1.34 91 2.87 84 1.89 80 2.09 69 1.98 65 1.56 64 1.22
Arousal 8.46 0.56 8.52 1.09 8.11 0.77 7.09 0.65 6.32 0.65 4.55 0.54 3.91 0.65
Valence 2.33 0.98 2.11 0.78 2.87 0.22 8.04 3.50 3.50 0.76 2.33 0.64 4.98 0.68
Script M (sd) M (sd) M (sd) M (sd) M (sd) M (sd) M (sd)
Correctness 86 2.33 88 3.98 85 2.87 77 2.09 74 1.98 67 2.09 60 2.09
Arousal 8.40 0.78 8.16 0.86 8.09 0.49 7.32 0.36 6.98 0.65 4.13 0.53 3.08 0.54
Valence 2.39 0.65 2.66 0.71 2.43 0.76 8.76 0.65 2.98 0.84 2.38 0.67 4.55 0.39
SAM rating nine-points (valence: 1 = high negative, 9 = high positive; arousal: 1 = low, 9 = high).
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Discussion
The present study produced three major results, that we
summarize in the following points. First, there was a clear
differentiation in childrenconceptualization (in terms of
arousal and valence) as a function of different emotions;
besides, the psychophysiological measures were highly
modulated by emotional types, and arousal and valence
parameters accounted for the psychophysiological varia-
tions in relationship with different emotional patterns; fi-
nally the presence of two different types of task afacial
expression decoding and a script comprehension in-
duced significant differences in the subjective represen-
tations only for a limited number (mainly disgust) of
emotions.
For the first time we used multimodal measures to ex-
plore the evaluation effect (based on valence and arousal)
on psychophysiological behavior taking into account
an ample range of emotions. Secondly we applied this
multimodal approach to study the specific domain of
facial expression of emotions whereas other previous
research did not specifically consider this emotional
domain. Thirdly we considered the facial expression
of emotion with and without an emotional script con-
text to study the contextual impact on face decoding.
Therefore the situated perspective was adopted in the
present research.
As hypothesized by the dimensional approach to emo-
tion [52,53], the representation of the emotional domain
was based on a conceptual space defined by two exes,
arousal and hedonic value. In particular, the emotions
with a high arousal level and a negative value were bet-
ter understood, if compared with other emotions. Specif-
ically, the emotions of fear, anger and surprise were well
recognized and well labeled. A significant higher arous-
ing power was attributed to them, and these emotions
were also considered as more negative. Moreover, they
Figure 2 Mean (and SE) SCR modulations in response to different emotions.
Figure 3 Mean (and SE) HR modulations in response to different emotions.
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were better recognized than the other emotions, specific-
ally in comparison with sadness and disgust. The positive
emotion of happiness was considered as less arousing and
more positively valenced and it was well represented and
recognized. On the contrary, disgust appears to be more
difficult to be identified, as well as sadness, and they both
were considered as less arousing and less negative. It should
be considered that in present research we opted to evaluate
the ability of subjects in spontaneously labelling the face/
script they saw. As revealed, disgust and sadness were not
immediately labelled, but in many cases they were correctly
described (using a semi-structured interview) only after a
successive enquire. Therefore, the subjects showed a gen-
eral ability in recognizing the two emotions, although this
recognition was less immediate. It should be based on the
increased complexity to decode these emotions, because
they are learned only successively in comparison with other
primary emotions (such as anger and fear).
Therefore a first main result of the present study was
that the dichotomy pleasure/displeasure and high/low
arousal was considered relevant by the subjects, confirm-
ing a significant role in emotion representation, as
indicated by previous researches [19,53,54]. In fact, not
only the hedonic category was systematically well repre-
sented, but it was correctly identified in terms of negativity
or positivity. Moreover, arousal rating can be considered a
predictive cue of the ability to classify and differentiate
emotional correlates. Indeed, it was correctly used when
the child was able to attribute an adequate label to the
emotion, while when the child cannot conceptualize the
emotion, the arousal value seems to be more ambiguous
(for example for disgust) or less relevant (sadness).
As regard to more negative and arousing emotions (fear,
anger and surprise) some recent study [55,56] revealed
high rates of recognition, that the researcher attributes to
the central adaptive function of these negative high arous-
ing emotions. Indeed, they has a main role for the individ-
ual safeguard, both on an ontogenetic and a phylogenetic
level. They may be represented as a cue in order to detect
unfavorable environmental conditions [19,54]. Accord-
ingly to the functional model [57,58], the emotional
expressions represent a response to a particular event, sig-
nificant in terms of costs and benefits for people. Speci-
fically, the expression of anger and fear represents the
Figure 4 Mean (and SE) (a) zygomatic and (b) corrugator modulations in response to different emotions.
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Table 2 Stepwise multiple regressions
Anger Fear Surprise Happiness Sadness Disgust Neutral
Predictor Arousal Valence Arousal Valence Arousal Valence Arousal Valence Arousal Valence Arousal Valence Arousal Valence
Model 12121212121212
Zygomatic
R 0.13 0.28 0.20 0.34 0.22 0.33 0.44 0.76 0.18 0.30 0.26 0.37 0.14 0.26
R2 0.01 0.07 0.04 0.09 0.04 0.11 0.19 0.57 0.03 0.09 0.06 0.03 0.01 0.06
β0.20 0.21 0.24 0.23 0.15 0.11 0.34 0.28 0.15 0.18 0.23 0.26 0.23 0.20
std error 0.21 0.22 0.15 0.17 0.21 0.28 0.18 0.27 0.23 0.20 0.17 0.19 0.18 0.26
t 1.02 0.87 0.95 0.88 0.78 0.70 1.76
*
1.54
*
0.77 0.84 0.96 0.87 0.67 0.59
Corrugator
R 0.49 0.64 0.1 = 51 0.69 0.35 0.52 0.24 0.41 0.18 0.29 0.22 0.40 0.18 0.29
R2 0.24 0.40 0.26 0.47 0.12 0.27 0.05 0.18 0.03 0.07 0.04 0.18 0.03 0.07
β0.31 0.32 0.23 0.21 0.27 0.20 0.23 0.28 0.32 0.38 0.36 0.29 0.20 0.23
std error 0.25 0.20 0.20 0.18 0.18 0.19 0.33 0.34 0.30 0.28 0.22 0.27 0.17 0.20
t1.88
*
1.03 1.93
*
1.02 1.43
*
0.99 1.02 0.96 0.65 0.49 0.90 0.78 0.56 0.43
SCR
R 0.43 0.69 0.54 0.72 0.38 0.62 0.32 0.59 0.21 0.38 0.29 0.51 0.17 0.29
R2 0.18 0.47 0.27 0.51 0.13 0.41 0.38 0.34 0.04 0.14 0.07 0.25 0.03 0.08
β0.18 0.28 0.22 0.20 0.18 0.23 0.29 0.20 0.34 0.35 0.35 0.57 0.27 0.33
std error 0.11 0.17 0.28 0.26 0.20 0.21 0.21 0.30 0.30 0.30 0.26 0.23 0.22 0.29
t1.80
*
1.19
*
1.97
*
1.07 1.65
*
1.17
*
1.12
*
1.15
*
0.88 0.63 1.10
*
1.08
*
0.54 0.45
HR
R 0.42 0.70 0.50 0.80 0.44 0.71 0.36 0.65 0.22 0.38 0.35 0.67 0.18 0.29
R2 0.17 0.49 0.25 0.64 0.19 0.50 0.14 0.42 0.04 0.14 0.12 0.36 0.03 0.08
β0.17 0.20 0.20 0.22 0.28 0.27 0.29 0.27 0.19 0.34 0.25 0.22 0.39 0.28
std error 0.22 0.26 0.18 0.15 0.20 0.21 0.32 0.30 0.15 0.18 0.18 0.29 0.27 0.22
t1.84
*
1.14
*
1.98
*
1.18
*
1.90
*
1.09
*
1.12
*
1.10
*
0.67 0.78 1.55
*
1.12
*
0.77 0.60
Arousal and valence as predictor variables, pshychophysiological measures as predicted variables.
*= P.05.
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perception of a threat for the personal safeguard and,
therefore, it requires a greater investment of attentional
resources. The prominence of specific category of emotion
(more negative and arousing) may suggest their central
role in emotion acquisition in comparison with other less
relevant (and less arousing) emotions in childhood.
The script condition introduces another main explica-
tive factor, regarding the emotional representation. In-
deed, the presence of a specific context generally does
not affect the correctness of the emotional label attribu-
tion, but it produces a discriminant effect exclusively for
one emotion, that is disgust. Indeed in presence of a spe-
cific situational context disgust was better characterized
in terms of arousal (more clearly arousing) and valence
(more negatively valenced). The presence of the inter-
actional features that characterize the emotional experi-
ence seems to introduce a facilitation element for emotion
comprehension, also producing a better description in the
emotion labeling (more correct recognition). It was pos-
sible to state that the situational component constitutes a
facilitation cue, because it allowed the subjects to activate
a more complex conceptual representation, which takes
into account the context in which the emotional event
happens, the emotional causes, the logical order of actions
and their consequences [4].
It was noticeable, however, that the script enables a
wider and a more complete representation only in case
of a this secondaryemotion, which maximally has a
benefit from the situated condition. It was observed that
emotion recognition was allowed by the development
and the generalization of an emotional script, that is, a
child can recognize a specific emotion by verifying the
presence of several prototypical elements that are ar-
ranged in precise causal and temporal sequences. These
scripts include not only facial expressions, but also the
representation of causal factors, physical and social con-
text, several actions and their consequences, as well as
the cognitive appraisal of the situation and the subjective
experience [4]. Among these cues, the representation of
the causal bonds, that is a set of causal events and of
their behavioral consequences, has a remarkable signifi-
cance, because they constitute the more explicative ele-
ments of the emotional experience [5,45,59].
To conclude, even if our study does not allow us to state
which of the two representational modalities (facial pattern
comprehension or script decoding) precedes the other, it
was possible to observe that the situational correlates pro-
vide a facilitation cue for the representation of emotional
correlate when a secondary emotion is represented. How-
ever, no specific facilitation effect was observable in case of
primaryemotions, which were well recognized and de-
scribed also in absence of contextual cues.
A relevant main result of the present research was
related to the psychophysiological measures which were
shown to vary in concomitance to the type of stimuli (dif-
ferent emotions) and to the categorization process (the
subjective ratings). In fact, subject revealed a coherent
psychophysiological behavior in response to the emotions,
independently from the condition (script or face). More-
over, it was shown that SCR, HR and EMG were modu-
lated as a function of the two main axes of valence and
arousal, as they were rated by the subjects.
Firstly, SCR was shown to be increased when children
processed emotional faces and scripts rated as high
arousing and negative (anger, fear and surprise), whereas
it decreased in concomitance with stimuli rated as low
arousing (mainly sadness, disgust, and neutral patterns).
A similar profile was observed for HR, which showed
higher values in case of more positive, more negative
and arousing stimuli. These results were in line with
many other studies on adults, which postulated a signifi-
cant HR effect for more arousing and relevant stimuli
[33-36]. Moreover, the variation in term of arousing
power (high vs. low) may determine the different impact
of the emotional cues, since perception of a high arousal
generally induces a consistent HR increasing independ-
ently from the stimulus valence. These multiple parame-
ters and their combination were relevant to comprehend
the effect of emotions on psychophysiological data.
An important result was also observed for the facial
EMG values. Indeed we found that children were highly
responsive to facial stimuli and scripts, by adopting a
sort of facial feedbackmodality, since they used similar
facial configurations displayed by the pictures (consonant
behavior) [60]. It was observed an increasing of mimic ac-
tivity in case of some conditions: the different emotions
evoked distinct facial EMG response patterns, with in-
creased zygomatic muscle activity to positive patterns and
increased corrugator muscle activity to negative patterns,
whereas both the corrugator and the zygomatic muscle re-
sponse patterns were less pronounced in sadness, disgust
and neutral condition. More generally, corrugator muscle
activity was increased in response to more negative and
arousing stimuli, mainly for fear, anger, and surprise. In
addition, as revealed by regression analysis, arousal param-
eter showed to explain in greater measure the corrugator
modulation, whereas valence was less relevant to describe
the psychophysiological activity in response to negative,
highly arousing patterns. Contrarily, zygomatic muscle was
modulated by both arousal and valence, with significant in-
creasing responsiveness related to happiness.
These variations may mark a psychophysiological re-
sponse in case of a high arousing situations, since rele-
vant (with arousing power) stimuli seem to produce and
reinforce a coherent psychophysiological behavior. Con-
trarily, subject reported a reduced arousing power for
sadness and partially for disgust, fact that may explain
the concomitant reduced EMG, SCR and HR values.
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Thus, more arousing conditions showed a perfect conson-
ance between subjective evaluation and psychophysio-
logical (both facial and autonomic) measures. Specifically,
anger, fear, surprise and happiness were rated as more
emotionally involving. In parallel, the psychophysiological
behavior was responsive of this subjective self-evaluation,
with an increased positive(zygomatic) facial expression
and a higher autonomic activity (increased HR) for happi-
ness, from one hand; an increased negative(corrugator)
facial expression and higher arousal response (more SCR
and HR) for anger, fear and surprise, from the other.
However, more generally the modulation of psycho-
physiological measures was mainly related to arousing
power more than to valence, since independently from
the valence, the stimuli rated as high arousing (anger,
fear, surprise and happiness) were able to induce a more
significant and coherent emotional response. Regression
analysis confirmed these results: mainly arousal attribu-
tion was significant to determine the psychophysiological
variations, able to explain SCR, HR and facial response
modulation, since subjects sharedthe facial behavior
and autonomic activity observed in both positive vs. nega-
tive conditions.
Thus, in general psychophysiological measures may be
interpreted as functional mechanism of mirroringthe
emotional condition displayed by the facial stimuli, where
sharingsimilar emotional responses allows a direct form
of understanding and recognize emotion by a sort of simu-
lation process. More specifically, contexts evaluated as
emotionally involving and significant may ingenerate a
consonant shared response by the observer, who firstly rec-
ognizes and secondly mimic(by face and autonomic be-
havior) the somatic markers related to the experienced
emotions [61]. Moreover, based on these results we may
suggest that the gradual development of emotional compe-
tencies proceeds from more basic and simple emotions,
which are primarily acquired by children, to more complex
and less prominent emotions, which might be less relevant
in terms of salience. Brain correlates may support this dif-
ferent learning process, related to a maturation effect
which might explain more deeply the early acquisition of
the recognition abilities in response to more salient and
relevant emotions in term of human safeguard and the
successive acquisition for the less relevant (less threatening
and primary for the safeguard) emotions.
To summarize, self-report measures were replicated by
psychophysiological behavior, that showed to vary coher-
ently in relationship with different emotions. Children
revealed a consonant and adequate behavior in terms of
labeling (correct recognition), evaluation (valence and
arousal attribution) and psychophysiological responsive-
ness. However, a clear advantage was observed for some
specific emotions, those rated as more arousing and
negative (fear, anger and surprise). It was suggested these
emotions may be central to people safeguard and they
may be priority developed by children. Arousal attribu-
tion was considered as the most critical parameter to ex-
plain the emotion recognition process and the
psychophysiological behavior. Contrarily, sadness and dis-
gust were less prominent in terms of both arousal and
valence, and in some cases they were also less correctly
recognized. The contextual cues (script condition) may
allow to perform a better attribution, mainly for the emo-
tion of disgust. In case of more complex emotional cue,
the context (script) contribution was relevant to complete
the correct recognition.
However, about the main limitations of the present
study, future research may explore more directly the intrin-
sic effect induced by facial expression of emotion taking
into account also gender effect. Indeed previous research
found significant differences between male/female children
in response to the emotional type. Secondly, the arousal ef-
fect we found in the present study should be better consid-
ered in relationship with different emotional valence taking
into account a wider range of facial expressions which may
cover the ample orthogonal axes low/high arousal positive/
negative valence. Thirdly, due to the limited sample we
used for the present research, it is crucial to integrate the
present data with an ampler sample size, in order to extend
the present results to a general population.
Competing interests
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Authorscontributions
MB planned the experiment, supervised the experiment; designed the
statistical analysis, wrote the paper. RF realized the experiment; applied the
analysis; provided the editorial and reference assistance. MEV realized the
experiment; applied the analysis; provided the editorial and reference
assistance. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Received: 19 May 2014 Accepted: 15 September 2014
Published: 26 September 2014
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Cite this article as: Balconi et al.:Multilevel analysis of facial expressions
of emotion and script: self-report (arousal and valence) and
psychophysiological correlates. Behavioral and Brain Functions 2014 10:32.
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