Developmental Changes in the Categorical Processing of Positive and Negative Facial Expressions

Categorical biases in the processing of emotional facial expression have been the subject of much debate in the literature. Opposing views on this topic claim either that positive or negative facial expressions enjoy improved processing in the human brain. The developmental changes in the processing advantages of positive and negative facial expressions are also disputed, with studies using varying paradigms showing seemingly contradictory results. Therefore, to further investigate the development of categorical processing and extraction of emotional information from faces, we tested 6-, 9-, and 12-year-old children, as well as adults, on their ability to categorize various facial expressions as positive or negative as quickly as possible. This was a simplified paradigm designed to explicitly contrast the processing efficiency of positive and negative facial expressions on the broader level of those emotional valence categories, rather than specific single emotional expressions. Our results show an early age processing advantage for positive facial expressions, which disappears in adults who show no such differences in the case of response time measures. In the case of accuracy measures, the early advantage for positive facial expressions gradually disappears, and is reversed into a negativity advantage in adults. These findings demonstrate that category-based positive and negative processing advantages are strongly modulated by age over the course of development, and can exhibit opposite effects depending on the developmental stage of the participant. Here we archive the accuracy and and response time data used for our publication.