School of Psychology

Social and emotional development

The Good or Bad Word and Picture Game

We all may be influenced to greater or lesser degrees by outside views, such as the media, peers, and family in the development of our own personal health-related perspectives and behaviours.  

We invited children to play a game to decide if each health-related picture or word was 'good' (placed under the smiley face) or 'bad' (placed under the frowny face).

They then made a personal decision for each picture and word according to what degree of 'good' or 'bad' it was, by placing it between 0 (the least) to 10 (the most). 

This was followed by age-appropriate questionnaires pertaining to body attitude (4-11 year olds) and perfectionism (7-11 year olds). 

During this time, parents also filled out a questionnaire to share their own views and experiences about health-related concepts.


We were interested to see how children view health-related concepts, using pictures and words, as being 'good' or 'bad', the development of these perspectives, and also if these ideas may be shared or differ between parent and child.

Overall, results point to specific links between child and parent in older children (7-11 year olds), as well as changes in health-related concepts between younger (4-6 year olds) and older children.  These results help to bring more clarity to how children’s perspectives may be related to certain aspects of their mother’s moods, attitudes, and perspectives, as well as how children’s health-related attitudes develop, are maintained, or change with age.

Is he joking, or being serious?

We were interested in whether children can make sense of sarcastic conversations, and, if not, what they think is going on. Children read some very short bits of conversation between two people and then answered questions about what the people meant by what they said, e.g.: "What a beautiful day", followed by "Terrible, isn’t it?" Sometimes one of the people was being sarcastic, but it was not always clear who. There was also a quick game in which children had to finish off incomplete sentences with an appropriate word.

We will be able to use the results to see how the understanding of sarcasm develops and how much this depends on being able to piece together difficult sentences.

What's inside the box?

Social interaction plays a crucial role in the survival of a species. Research shows that human infants demonstrate an ability to identify and respond to social cues like faces in their environment from a very early age.

This study used a very simple paradigm that measures people’s social and non-social choices, and also gives an indicator of how much effort people invest in getting what they prefer. Our previous study with adults showed that typical adults prefer to look at the social stimuli even when they have to spend relatively more effort to do so.

However, our previous studies during Summer Scientist Week 2013 and 2014 showed that children between ages 4-11 may not have as strong preference for social stimuli as adults. In fact, their behaviour is more likely to be exploratory in nature as they preferred to explore both social as well as non-social stimuli. We also found that, like adults, children prefer to spend the least effort in the task. The lack of social preference in younger participants could be due to age-mismatch between the participants and the models in the social movies.

Therefore, in Summer Scientist Week 2015 we changed the paradigm to present a wider choice amongst object, social movies of adults, and social movies of children. The findings once again suggested that younger participants do not show any preference for stimuli type. We are still exploring the data to see if they continue to demonstrate the preference for low effort, and also if there is any relation between increase in age and the preference for social stimuli.

Overall, our studies show that while adults choose to engage with social stimuli in their environment even if they need to make extra effort for it, children are more likely to spend time exploring both social and non-social stimuli equally. 

Reading faces

The ability to infer other people’s minds is essential to social communication. In this study, we explored children’s abilities to infer other people’s mental states from facial expressions. Recent studies have shown that we can see the world through the lens of another person’s mind.

We aimed to investigate if children are capable of inferring someone else’s minds from facial expressions. In one group, children were asked to guess which emoticon the person they saw were looking at. 

Meanwhile, in another group, children were asked to choose the emoticon that best represents the expression of the person they saw.

We predicted that the children who had to judge which emoticon the person they saw were looking at would take longer, and that this would correlate with age. 

Our findings revealed that the response time did not differ regardless of what children were asked to do. As for their performance, children were able to accurately infer which emoticon the person was looking at, but this was only true for the more expressive emotions. Not only that, we also did not find any correlation between age, performance and response time.

This seems to suggest that children use the same strategy when they are asked to infer someone else’s minds as compared to when they are asked to do a simple classification task. 


Scary or safe?

People learn about what things around them might be 'scary' or 'safe' on the basis of past experience. For example, if something that’s not unpleasant (such as seeing your neighbour’s dog) is often followed by something unpleasant (such as the dog attacking you), you might start to feel scared of the dog as soon as you see it. You might even start to feel scared of your friend’s dog, even though it has never attacked you.

We were interested in how children might be different to adults in the way that they learn these sorts of associations. We were especially interested in comparing a new version of the game (where the scary event is an animal jumping out from behind a tree) to one that has been used before (where the scary event is someone screaming).

Children filled in a questionnaire about their natural tendency to get anxious, and then watched some events on a computer screen. Sometimes something mildly scary happened – either someone screaming or an animal jumping out from behind a tree. We were interested in children’s ratings of how likely it was that something scary would happen.

Our findings showed that children tended to be good at learning to predict which neutral picture would be followed by something scary, regardless of what the scary event was. However, there were some more subtle differences between the two games in terms of responses from children who differ in how anxious they get about things. We plan to follow this up with a bigger group of children and adolescents in the future.

If your child took part in this game, you might remember that we asked for permission to contact you about your child doing a follow-up questionnaire online. The dates for this are coming up, so watch out for an email about it soon. 


School of Psychology

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The University of Nottingham
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