To What Extent Are Advances in Cognitive Development Influence the Expression of Primary & Secondary Emotions?

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The dispute concerning the definition, presence and number of basic emotions present at birth is a controversial topic in psychology and numerous definitions and theories exist (Ortony & Turner, 1990). The aim of this essay is to discuss the influence of advances in cognitive development upon the expression of primary and secondary emotions. Most psychologists today suggest that by six months of age the following emotions have appeared: anger, fear, disgust, sadness, joy and happiness (Sroufe, 1996). These are known as the primary emotions which are apparent at birth and within a child’s development during the first few months. However whether these early expressions represent meaningful emotional states or are more indicative of the infant's general arousal level has been questioned (Camras, 1992 cited Bennett, Bendersky & Lewis 2005).

From birth onwards babies start expressing their emotional state which can easily be distinguished between a happy and a distressed infant. It is only with recognition that the infant’s awareness allows a pleasant or unpleasant emotion. Research by Zelazo and Komer (1971) found that up to three months of age a baby will smile at any face. However at around five months of age the baby differentiates between faces and smiles at those it has a facial schema towards. This link between emotions and cognitive advancement was referred as “the smile which appears to be an open window through which we may view one aspect of cognitive functioning in infants” (Zelazo & Komer, 1971, p.1338).

The inception of crawling allows the child to further interact with its environment and broadens the child’s experience to emotions. It was found that those that crawl early develop a fear of heights early and those that crawl at a later age are also late to develop a fear of heights (Campos, Bertenthal & Kermoian, 1992). It is also with the child’s increasing mobility, expanding cognitive capacity and improved perception ability that the forming of attachments occurs, this is seen as a cornerstone in emotional development. Social attachment studies (Ainsworth et al. 1978, 1979; Bowlby, 1958; Schaffer & Emerson, 1964) have shown that a child forms an attachment to a caregiver and separation anxiety and stranger anxiety taking place when the caregiver isn’t present.

This development coincides with Piaget’s theory of object permanence, which occurs at approximately seven to twelve months of child’s life. Hebb (1946 cited Lamb, Bornstein & Teti, 2002) proposed that fear of strangers arises in young children because they have formed mental schemas of familiar individuals and any discrepancy from the familiar evokes emotions of fear. However Berenson (1996) argued against this as it was found that infants could differentiate between their caregivers and strangers by as little as three months yet stranger fear wasn’t shown till they were seven months old. This suggests according to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development that secondary emotions develop earlier.

Hebb’s original theory was amended by Kagan, Kearsley and Zelazo (1978) who argued that discrepancies between memory and perception up to the age of six months produce interest opposed to fear in the child. After this age the child has the cognitive capacity to explain the discrepancies using its own schemas and fear is produced when an inconsistency fails to meet the child’s schema. However despite the theories described above it has been argued that no evidence to date supports a relation between object permanence and either stranger or separation distress (Campos et al., 1983; Campos & Stenberg, 1981 cited Witherington et al. 2001)

At approximately two years of age an important cognitive change occurs as children manifest self-conscious emotions which emerge from the child’s developing sense of awareness. These are also known as the secondary emotions which consist of emotions such as embarrassment, pride, shame, empathy and jealousy. These...
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