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How Emotions Develop and How They Organize Development

Article  in  Cognition and Emotion · April 1990

DOI: 10.1080/02699939008407142


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How Emotions Develop and How they Organise


Kurt W. Fischer , Phillip R. Shaver & Peter Carnochan

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COGNITION AND EMOTION,1990,4 (2), 81-127

How Emotions Develop and

How they Organise Development
Kurt W. Fischer
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Human Development, Harvard University, Cambridge,

Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Phillip R. Shaver
Psychology Department, State University of New York, Buffalo, U.S.A.
Peter Carnochan
Psychology Department, Denver University, Colorado, U.S.A.

Concepts from functional theories of emotions are integrated with princi- ,

ples of skill development to produce a theory of emotional development.
The theory provides tools for predicting both the sequences of emotional
development and the ways emotions shape development. Emotions are
characterised in terms of three component models: (a) the process of
emotion generation from event appraisal, (b) a hierarchy of emotion cate-
gories organised around a handful of basic-emotion families, and (c) a
characterisation of emotions in terms of prototypic event scripts. The basic
emotions and the positive vs. negative hedonic components of emotions
function as constraints or organisers that shape behaviour whenever an
emotion is activated. Through these patterning effects, emotions shape both
short-term behavioural organisation and long-term development. The skill-
development component of the theory explains how, as children grow, they
construct and control increasingly complex skills-which affect many
aspects of emotion, from appraisal to emotional self-control. These skills
can be characterised in terms of a series of developmental tiers and levels;
they are not fixed traits of the child but instead are affected by assessment
conditions and emotional action tendencies. The developmental process

Requests for reprints should be sent to Dr Kurt W. Fischer, Human Development, Lanen
Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. 02138, U.S.A.
The work in this article was supported by a fellowship from the Cattell fund and grants
from the Spencer Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation Network on Early Childhood, the
National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Science Foundation. The authon
would like to thank Joseph Campos, Robert Emde, Sharon Griffin, Helen Hand, Susan
Harter, Jerome Kagan. Susie Lamborn, Marc Lewis, Sandra Pipp, Judy Schwaru, Louise
Silvern, and Malcolm Watson for their contributions to the arguments represented here.

@ 1990 Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Limited


gradually moves from basic, species-specific emotions to culture-specific,

subordinate-category emotions and the complexities of adult emotional
experiences. The theory provides a set of conceptual and methodological
tools to predict and assess emotional development. It also indicates how
emotional development fits with other aspects of systematic change in the
organisation of behaviour.

Emotions develop, and as they do, they help structure and direct other
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aspects of development. A theory of emotional development needs to

explicate both of these distinct sets of phenomena-the development of
emotions and the ways that emotions shape development (Barrett &
Campos, 1987; Izard & Malatesta, 1987).
During the first year or SO of life, infants exhibit facial expressions and
action patterns that most parents and psychologists readily categorise as
instances of joy, affection, anger, sadness, and fear. Over many years, as
infants develop into adults, more complex emotions develop, such as
compassion, nostalgia, humiliation, resentment, and alienation. This is the
first set of phenomena that needs explication-the development from a
few relatively simple basic emotions to a broad array of complex and often
subtle ones.
At the same time, emotions shape development. When an emotion is
activated, it tends to shift a person’s goals from their prior state to a new
organisation determined by the emotion. For example, when a one-year-
old girl becomes angry at her father’s interference with her play, she stops
playing, complains, and pushes him away to stop the interference. This
organising effect of emotions on behaviour begins in early infancy and
continues throughout life. When children have disproportionate experi-
ence with one or more specific emotions, their development is affected in
particular ways, from having a propensity for certain kinds of appraisals to
continually exhibiting certain emotion-specific facial expressions or show-
ing vastly different behavioural patterns as a function of social-emotional
states. That is, emotional experiences have long-term effects on develop-
ment, producing particular developmental pathways.
We argue that a systematic approach to behavioural organisation called
skill theory (Fischer, 1980) provides a basis for analysing emotional de-
velopment. Skill theory is based in extensive research on development of
many different behaviours in diverse settings, including emotion-related
situations. In an earlier article (Fischer, Shaver, & Carnochan, 1988), we
argued that skill theory helps to resolve antinomies between cognitive and
noncognitive views of emotion elicitation and between universalist and
relativist positions concerning cross-cultural comparisons of emotions. In
brief, the elicitation of basic emotions, especially in early infancy, can be

based on extremely simple appraisals (e.g. that a situation is novel, that a

simple goal-directed action is unexpectedly blocked). Later in develop-
ment the elicitation of more complex emotions (guilt, jealousy) involves
cognitively complex appraisals, often involving culture-bound social situa-
tions and interpretations of events. These more complex emotions can
differ across cultures and historical periods in ways that basic emotions
probably cannot.
The skill approach combines an analysis of emotions with a system for
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analysing the development of skills. The approach has been used to predict
and test development of understanding emotions and telling stories about
them, and so our exposition will focus on these emotion-related pheno-
mena. As we will explain, having emotions and vividly acting out stones
about emotions are closely linked, especially in early childhood, and
developments in one are likely to signal developments in the other. We
propose that the skill approach can be extended to provide useful develop-
mental analyses of other aspects of emotion, such as expression and self-
control. As we describe the theory, we will point out ways that the
approach makes contact with these other aspects of emotions, especially in
infancy, where the bulk of the research on development of emotion
expression and elicitation has been done. We realise that extensive re-
search will be required to test this theory of emotions. A major goal of this
article is to encourage and facilitate such research.
In the present article we show how skill theory can be used to predict
developmental sequences of emotions and the shaping effects of emotions
on pathways of development. Our analysis is divided into two major parts.
The first has to do with a conception of emotions, which (following many
current leads) might be called functionalist or organisational (Barrett &
Campos, 1987; Bretherton, Fritz, Zahn-Waxler, & Ridgeway, 1986; Fri-
jda, 1986). The second has to do with the application of skill theory to the
development of emotions so conceived. Our exposition will necessarily be
abstract and synoptic, given the scope of our concerns and a restricted
number of pages. We will try to elaborate sufficiently to give a sense of how
the approach works and will suggest sources where further explication of
methods and concepts are available. We will also illustrate how to use the
theory with concrete examples involving joy and anger, as well as the nice
and mean social interactions that relate to them, although we will touch
upon many other emotions as well.


Contemporary emotion theorists and researchers agree substantially on the
broad nature of emotions, and our analysis builds upon that consensus. In
contrast to earlier views-that emotion is equivalent to arousal, that

emotions are disruptive of cognition, that emotions are primarily subjec-

tive feelings-this functionalist view considers emotions as organised,
meaningful, generally adaptive action systems. Although emotions often
suffer a bad press, their effect is mostly positive and adaptive, steering
people toward behaviours that meet important needs and motivating
development toward effective action. Emotions are disorganising or dis-
ruptive only when they bring about something insistently incompatible
with whatever else the emotional person is trying to accomplish.
On the one hand, most investigators agree with Darwin (18724975) that
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emotions are discrete, innate, functional, biosocial action and expression

systems (e.g., Ekman, 1984; Emde, 1980a; Frijda, 1986; Izard, 1977;
Tomkins, 1962-1963). At least the primary, basic, or discrete emotions
(different writers use different names for these) are evident in infancy and
are cross-culturally universal (Barrett & Campos, 1987; Ekman, Friesen,
& Ellsworth, 1982; Scherer, 1988). Theoretical work by Arnold (1960) and
Tomkins (1962-1%3) and research by Izard, Ekman, Campos, Emde, and
their coworkers have more or less driven out rival conceptions of emotion
focusing on arousal (Duffy, 1962), the cognitive labelling of arousal
(Schachter & Singer, 1962), and the social construction of emotions
On the other hand, an increasing number of investigators also acknow-
ledge the role of cognitive processes such as judgement, appraisal, and
intentions or goals in the elicitation and structuring of emotions (e.g.
Lazarus, 1984; Ortony, Clore, & Collins, 1988; Roseman, 1984; Ellsworth
& Smith, 1988a, 1988b). Many current theories of emotion (e.g. Ekman,
1984; Frijda, 1986; Plutchik, 1980; Scherer, 1984) and emotional develop-
ment (Bretherton et al., 1986; Barrett & Campos, 1987; Leventhal &
Scherer, 1987) embrace both the functionalist position and the cognitive
one. Even Izard, who maintains that cognitive and emotional systems are
independent, acknowledges the emergence in development of “cognitive-
affective structures or emotion-cognition complexes” (Izard & Malatesta,
1987, p. 498).
Building upon compatible recent theories, we will assemble a functional-
ist framework for emotions that specifies how emotions organise behaviour
and how they relate to cognitive processing. Based upon this framework, a
theory that explains development of skill organisation can be used to
analyse emotional development.

Defining Emotions
Emotions strike people so personally, so compellingly, that it violates
intuition to acknowledge lack of clarity in the meaning of the term
emotion. But the range of referents of words like “emotion,” “joy”, and

“anger” is wide (Averill, 1975). Emotion draws under itself experiences as

diverse as the subtle enjoyment that comes from the warmth of a summer
day and the wrenching agony and rage that stem from the loss of a loved
one. Even within a specific emotion category such as anger, there is large
variability. People speak of a man being angry when he gets into a fist fight
or when he quietly fumes about the unreasonableness of his boss.
Emotions are complex functional wholes including appraisals or appre-
ciations, patterned physiological processes, action tendencies, subjective
feelings, expressions, and instrumental behaviours. But as Barrett and
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Campos (1987) point out, none of these features is necessary for a

particular instance of emotion. Emotions fit into families, within which all
members share a family resemblance but no universal set of features. In
the terms of cognitive theory, emotions fit the prototype model of categor-
ies, in which all category members can be related to a best instance
(prototype) defining the category but few members have all characteristics
of that prototype (Rosch, 1978;Fehr & Russell, 1984;Shaver, Schwartz,
Kirson, & O’Connor, 1987;Wittgenstein, 1953).
What is most prototypical of a particular emotion-anger, for
example-is a certain kind of functional relation between person and
environment. If a person or situation is perceived as illegitimately thwart-
ing or punishing, the response is likely to be angry, retaliatory, protesting,
or the like. Whether this response involves a particular facial expression
(or a raised voice, or clenched fists, or a particular conception of legiti-
macy) is a matter of probability. What is characteristic of anger is its
overall organisation and function, not any of its many other features.
Similarly, other emotions have a characteristic overall organisation and
At least three components are required to deal with the complexities of
the many emotions. First, the process of emotions involves the elicitation
of functionally organised action tendencies by people’s appraisals of events
as advancing or hampering their goals or concerns (implicit goals) in some
specific way. Secondly, categories of emotions form families organised
around a few basic emotions and forming a three-layer hierarchy of
superordinate (positive or negative), basic, and subordinate (differentiated
and situationally specific). Thirdly, each emotion category is defined in
terms of a prototypical action script delineating a sequence of events for
that category. We need to elaborate these three components of emotions
before we can explicate emotional development in terms of skill theory.

Processes Generating Emotions

In common with many authors, we suggest that the action tendencies of
emotions arise when people appraise their goals or concerns as being
advanced or hampered in some specific way (Barrett & Campos, 1987;

defivera, 1986; Frijda, 1986; Leventhal & Scherer, 1987; Ortony et al.,
1988; Roseman, 1984; Scherer, 1984). The appraisals usually occur auto-
matically, without elaborate conscious evaluation. They are part of what
Frijda (1986) calls “situational meaning structure”, much of which is
implicit or unconscious at any given moment. The theoretical sequence of
events involved in the generation of an emotion is outlined in Fig. 1.
Emotions siart with the detection of a notable change-something
different or unexpected that acts as a signal to continue processing the
input for its personal significance (Scherer, 1984). The continued proces-
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sing involves appraising the event in relation to concerns and coping

potential. The term concerns refers both to the individual’s current goals
and wishes and to his or her implicit goals (Frijda, 1986). The notable
change is appraised to determine whether it promotes or interferes with
these concerns. Positive emotions arise from events that facilitate goal
attainment, negative emotions from events that interfere (Roseman,
Also appraised is the person’s coping potential (Scherer, 1984), which
influences which particular positive or negative emotion will occur. The
emotion arises from the person’s appraisal of how he or she can cope with
or change the event. Joy appears when according to the appraisal the event
is desirable or is going unexpectedly well and no special effort is required.
Anger occurs when according to the appraisal the event threatens an
important goal and the person feels that he or she has the wherewithal
(or at least the justification; Roseman, 1984) to remove that threat or
obstacle. When, according to the appraisal, the negative event is complete
and cannot be removed or reversed, the person experiences sadness. When
an event is appraised as dangerous and control is uncertain, the emotion is
Following each specific appraisal, the person begins to experience and
exhibit the action tendency specific to that emotion-an organised
approach to dealing with his or her relation to the appraised event (Frijda,
1986; Frijda, Kuipers, & ter Schure, 1989). That is, for each emotion, a
distinct pattern of actions and bodily events is evoked. For joy, the action
tendency includes feeling good, opening one’s perceptual and associative
pathways (Isen, 1984), and allowing or encouraging the event to continue.
For anger, it includes focusing attention on the bamer or injustice,
preparing the body for action, and attempting to resist or overcome the
The emotional action tendency exhibits what Frijda (1986) calls control
precedence, top priority in the control of behaviour. While driving to the
supermarket (a goal-directed action), a person may suddenly become
frightened or angry about traffic and temporarily direct coping efforts
toward that problem, forgetting about shopping. The action tendency also
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Appraisalof the Emotion-specific Action,

Notable t Change in Relationto: Action Tendencies and Expression,
Change 1. Concerns Concomitant Physiological consdous
2. Coping Potential Changes self-categorlsing

Note: The heavy lines indicatethe locus of action

tendenciesfor specific emotions.

FIG. 1. Model of the emotion process.


prepares the body physiologically to take the indicated actions. The person
displays changes in tension, posture, blood pressure, and heart rate, as well
as specific facial and vocal expressions. Of course, these parts of the action
tendency contribute to particular subjective feelings associated with par-
ticular emotions. As complex as this action tendency may be, it usually
occurs automatically, permeating behaviour and experience (as suggested
by the heavy lines in Fig. 1).
People also monitor their own emotional reactions and try to control
them (Kopp, 1988; Lazarus, 1984; Saarni, 1984). We propose that these
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self-control efforts occur through the self-monitoring of action tendencies,

which involves an additional loop through the basic appraisal process, as
shown in Fig. 1. Some previous investigators have suggested that self-
control efforts require a separate component in the process (Frijda, 1986;
Shaver et al., 1987; Leventhal & Scherer, 1987)-something akin to a
Freudian ego-but they seem to us to require only a reapplication of the
basic appraisal process in which emotional action tendencies themselves
become the events appraised.
In this way, people can have an emotion about an emotion. Suppose that
the initial pass through the appraisal process produces anger. The person
perceives his or her own emerging anger as a notable change that is itself
appraised in relation to goals and concerns. If this second appraisal
produces a fear of the consequences of anger, such as counter-attack, then
the fear affects the anger action tendencies. Fear involves fleeing or
freezing, which inhibits the anger. There is a fear of anger or a conflict
between fear and anger. (This is how we propose to deal with psychodyna-
mic concepts such as repression and defence; see Fischer & Pipp, 1984a.)
Development produces reorganisation of all the components of the
emotion process in Fig. 1. In early infancy, for example, the distinction
between action tendencies and action itself is not present: The frustrated
infant produces angry actions (Campos et al., 1983; Lewis, in press). Later,
children gradually come to be able to note their own emotional action
tendencies and thus monitor their emotions. In a similar way, there are
developments in the kinds of changes that are noticed, the perceived
coping potential, self-monitoring,emotion labelling, and rules for emotion
The approach we develop in the second half of this paper provides tools
for investigating the development of the various emotion components.
Because a thorough analysis of all these developments would require many
pages, we will focus primarily on the patterns of appraisal and the plans of
action evidenced when children tell stories about emotional events, a
phenomenon that has been studied from a skill-theory perspective. But the
theory is designed to deal also with the development of emotion elicitation,
expression, and regulation.

An Emotion Hierarchy
Besides a model of emotion processes, we also need a developmentally
significant model of emotion categories. Emotion researchers have been
divided between at least two opposing camps. One group emphasises the
common biological bases of a limited set of so-called basic or discrete
emotions, such as anger, fear, sadness, joy, and love, which appear to be
universal in human beings (Ekman, 1973; Emde, 1980a; Izard, 1977; for
love, see Bretherton & Waters, 1985; Epstein, 1984; Sroufe, 1979).
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Another group dwells on the more complex, socially constructed emotions,

such as loneliness and resentment in English-language culture, amae in
Japanese culture (Morsbach & Tyler, 1986), or sungkan in Javanese
culture (Geertz, 1974)-which show great cultural diversity (HarrC, 1986).
We propose that emotion categories are organised into emotion families
in something like the way illustrated in Fig. 2, which relates the emotion
categories from the two opposing camps. The hierarchy contains three
different levels or layers of categories. (We will henceforth refer to them as
layers, to distinguish them from the developmental levels discussed later in
the article.) At the top of the hierarchy is the superordinate layer, a
division into positive and negative that arises from the appraisal of events
in relation to concerns, as shown in Fig. 1. In the middle of the vertical
dimensions of the hierarchy is the basic layer, “basic” being used in the
sense explained by Rosch (1978). Basic emotion categories are those that
are shared most generally across cultures, including anger, sadness, fear,
joy, and love. Each of the basic Categories defines a family of categories at
the subordinate layer. The subordinate categories are more complex,
socially constructed emotions, such as adoration, resentment, loneliness,
and jealousy. Later we will use this hierarchy as a guide to probable
developmental pathways for emotions from basic categories to subordinate
The hierarchy is built on research by Shaver et al. (1987) concerning
American adults’ use of emotion terms, and is generally consistent with
findings for European adults (Scherer, 1988). Recent research using
Shaver et al.3 methodology for inferring a hierarchy indicates that
similar hierarchies obtain in Italy and China (Agnoli, Kirson, Wu, &
Shaver, 1989). The superordinate and basic emotion categories are largely
the same, while some of the subordinate emotions making up each basic
family (bottom layer of Fig. 2) are different for each culture. Also, the
Chinese use an additional basic-emotion family-shame. Our use of the
hierarchy as a clue to developmental pathways can endure future debates
about the exact form of the hierarchy in different cultures. In fact, cultural
variations suggest interesting possibilities for developmental research.
The categories in the middle layer of the hierarchy are basic in several
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Infatuation Contentment Hostility Jealousy Grief Loneliness

FIG. 2. A simplified version of the emotion hierarchy reported by Shaver et al. (1987). Only a few of the subordinate
category emotions are included here.

senses. They overlap closely with the emotions that have been identified as
universal across human cultures, as shown both by infant facial and vocal
expressions and by adult categories. They include most of the first emotion
terms learned by American and British children and presumably children
in other societies as well (Bretherton et al., 1986; Dunn, Bretherton, &
Mum, 1987). And they help explain the family groupings of specific
emotions in the subordinate layer of the hierarchy.
Because of the many indications of the pervasiveness of these basic
categories, we propose that they represent not merely ways that people put
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emotion words together but core species-specific emotional organisations

that operate from early infancy and shape both behaviour and develop-
ment throughout life. That is, the action tendencies underlying the basic
emotions are species-specifichuman characteristics shared by all people. In
the literature on species-specific learning, such shared shaping effects are
often referred to as constraints or biases (Gelman & Carey, in press; Gould
& Marler, 1987), but because of the negative connotations of those words,
we prefer to speak of shaping or organising influences (see also Barrett &
Campos, 1987; Emde, 1980a; Sroufe, 1979). Emotions are thus one of a
broad class of species-specific constraints or organisers, which reduce the
range of potentially available behaviours.
The categories at the superordinate layer-positive and negative-are
clearly at a different level of organisation, but they are also basic in an
important sense: As suggested by their place in the emotion process model,
they arise early in the process, from appraisal of a notable change in terms
of the person’s concerns. In Rosch’s (1978) theory, superordinate categor-
ies are supposedly less accessible and pervasive than basic ones, but
developmental evidence sometimes contradicts that claim (Mandler &
Bauer, 1988). With emotions, children develop words for positive and
negative as early as words for basic emotions. Examples include nice,
good, like, bud, meun, and don’t like (Bretherton et a]., 1986; Fischer et
al., 1984). Across cultures, division into positive and negative has proven
to be one of the most fundamental human categorisations (Davitz, 1969;
Emde, 1980b; Osgood, Suci, & Tannenbaum, 1957; Russell & Ridgeway,
Subordinate emotions are less pervasive, however. Many of them show
wide variations across cultures, and children’s knowledge of them develops
late (Bretherton et al., 1986; Dunn et a]., 1987). Categories like bliss,
contentment, annoyance, resentment, depression, hostility, and jealousy
involve culturally specific information about social interpretations, includ-
ing factors such as motivation and social status. In some cases, such as
annoyance, they specify a specific subcategory of a basic emotion like
anger. In many cases, they involve complexities far beyond the basic
emotions. Resentment implies a particular type of social relationship,

where the offended party is angry but for some reason feels unable to
retaliate. Jealousy involves not only a type of social relationship but also a
combination of basic emotions, including anger, love, and fear (Sharp-
steen, in press). The meanings of subordinate emotion categories are
therefore more complex than those for basic and superordinate emotions,
and they depend on specific experience in social contexts.

Prototypic Action Scripts for Emotions

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According to Rosch’s (1978) theory, each family of categories can be

defined by a prototype. We propose that the prototype for each basic
emotion is a script of behavioural and social events for the best or most
typical case of the emotion, the essence of the category. These action
scripts are similar to those described by Nelson (1985) for activities like
going to bed or having a birthday party and by Schank and Abelson (1977)
for eating at a restaurant. As with prototypes in general, adults agree on
the categories for prototypic emotion episodes but disagree on episodes
with only some of the features of the prototypic script. Shaver et al. (1987)
derived a set of prototypic scripts for the basic-category emotions in Fig. 2
by analysing American adults’ accounts of emotion episodes (See also
Averill, 1982; de Rivera, 1981; Scherer, 1988). Although these scripts are
thus derived from accounts of emotion episodes (that is, cognitive repre-
sentations), we use them here as guides to the real actions and events in
emotion prototypes. Indeed, they relate closely to the events and actions
found in research on infants’ and children’s emotions, as we will show.
In line with other researchers’ usage, the term “script” refers to both the
generic representation of an event and the plan that is used to enact the
event. In other words, a restaurant script can be used both: (1) to
understand a scene in a movie in which two characters enter a restaurant,
sit down, eat a meal, and then pay the bill; and (2) to carry out the actions
of entering a restaurant, following a hostess to a table, and so forth.
Similarly, an anger script can play a role not only in understanding or
perceiving anger events but also in becoming angry, expressing anger, and
controlling it.
The script structure of the prototype for each emotion specifies typical
antecedents and responses, including behavioural, expressive, experien-
tial, and cognitive components. For the negative basic emotions, there are
also typical self-control or coping strategies (see Kopp, 1988). Such coping
strategies are omitted in the scripts for positive emotions because adults
typically left them out of their emotion accounts in the research of Shaver
et al. (1987). Of course, subtle or less frequent attempts to control positive
emotions are not precluded by this omission.
Tables 1 and 2 show idealised versions of the empirically derived action
Adult Script for Anger (Based on Empirical Research)

Antecedents: Illegitimate Interruption, Violation, or H a m

Something or someone violates the person’s wishes or expectations, obstructs or interferes
with the person’s freedom of movement or goal-attainment, hurts or insults the person,
ignores or demeans the person’s status.
This interference or harm is perceived as illegitimate, as something that should not happen
and should not be allowed to happen.
Responses: Vigorous Protest, A ftack, Retaliation
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The person becomes energised, and mentally and behaviourally organised, to protest or fight
or retaliate, thereby restoring justice, freedom of movement or passage, proper recognition,
The person looks and sounds angry (e.g. face red, brows furled, voice raised) and moves in
an emphatic, threatening, or exaggerated way.
The person is preoccupied with the anger-inducing situation and repeatedly insists that he
or she is right, deserves better treatment, etc.
Self- Control Procedures: Suppression and Redejinition
The person may try to suppress or hide the anger or redefine or remove the situation so that
anger is no longer called for.

Note: Idealised version of results reported by Shaver et al. (1987).

scripts for anger and joy (also called happiness). In anger, for example, the
person sees some event as interrupting or violating her goals or threatening
harm in a manner that is unfair to her. She responds by becoming
energised for aggression, focusing on the situation that is causing the
anger, and looking and moving angrily. She may also attempt to control
the emotion, hiding or suppressing it or redefining what happened so that
anger is no longer called for.

Adult Script for Joy (Based on Empirical Research)

Antecedents: Desirable Outcome, Achievement, Affection, Esteem

The person receives or attains something wished or strived for; receives esteem, praise, or
affection (is accepted, liked, loved); has surprisingly good fortune or receives a benefit that
exceeds expectations.
Responses: Smiling, Laughing, Communicating Good Feelings, Positive Outlook
The person smiles, laughs, is warm and sociable, communicates and shares the good news and
good feelings, is optimistic and less vulnerable to worry, feels and acts energised or excited,
jumps up and down, hugs others, is kind and generous toward others.
Self-Control Procedures: Not a Salient Issue
(Although suppression of joy in the interest of decorum or avoidance of envy is possible, such
self-control efforts are not prototypical.)

Note: Idealised version of results reported by Shaver et al. (1987).


We assume that the action scripts represented by these texts develop

from the species-specific action tendencies of infants’ basic emotions via
long-term experience with their shaping effects in oneself and in others, as
well as socialisation experiences when the emotions are expressed. Key
parts of the action tendencies are outlined under Responses in the tables.
These prototypic scripts emphasise the biosocial nature of emotions
(Campos et al., 1983; de Rivera, 1986; Emde, 1980a), although they do not
deal exhaustively with all social aspects of emotions. The scripts explicitly
include other people in the prototypes because in our research most
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subjects included people in their stories about emotions, even though a

person can obviously experience anger or joy in the absence of other
people. A major component of emotions is social communication and
regulation. Because of the close ties between emotional appraisals, subjec-
tive feelings, action tendencies, expressions, and behaviours, emotions
communicate to other people one’s needs, wishes, intentions, understand-
ings, and likely behaviours. This communication generally promotes both
need satisfaction and social co-ordination. Every culture imposes display
rules for emotions, suggesting that emotions are an important target of
social control (Hochschild, 1983). Also, in different cultures, historical
periods, and age groups, people exhibit different emotions and talk diffe-
rently about emotions ( H a d , 1986; Heider, in press; Lutz, 1988).

Emotions as Organisers that Shape Development

According to theory, then, emotions arise when people detect a notable
change in their situation and appraise both the significance of that change
for their concerns and the potential they have for coping with it. The
particular appraisal mobilises an emotion (action tendency) that organises
a wide range of behaviours into a specific pattern or script. The patterned
action tendencies (and their associated appraisals) fall within a set of basic
emotion families, including love, joy, anger, fear, and sadness. They also
generally divide into positive and negative (notable change appraised as
good or bad for the person). This general organisation of emotions is
present in rudimentary form at an early age, but all its components
develop, becoming more complex and differentiated as well as more
Besides themselves developing, emotions also shape development, with
different emotional experiences producing dkrincr developmental parh-
ways, both between and within individuals. Many scholars have argued
that emotions have such an organising effect on development (Case, Hay-
ward, Lewis, & Hurst, 1988; Demos, 1988; Emde, 1980a; Fox & David-
son, 1984; Izard & Malatesta, 1987; Leventhal & Scherer, 1987; Sullivan,
1953;Tomkins, 1962-1963), and the skill approach provides a framework for
analysing and predicting those effects.

The diverse developmental pathways are produced by the action tenden-

cies for the basic emotions as well as those for positive and negative
reactions, all of which are present early in infancy. Because of their control
precedence, emotions organise behaviour in particular patterns whenever
they are activated. Different emotional experiences thus lead to different
behavioural organisations, with recurrent emotional experiences of a parti-
cular kind evoking similar organisations each time and thus shaping
development along a specificpathway. These shaping effects are evident in
phenomena as diverse as facial expressions, attachment patterns, and
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personality disorders.

Dominance of an Emotion. One of the most straightforward shaping

effects of emotions involves the dominance of an emotion in an individual.
When people experience one emotion repeatedly, it can shape their
development, moulding the architecture of both their face and their
personality. Malatesta (1988) has demonstrated, for example, that some
adults have a dominant emotion: It shows in their facial expressions when
they try voluntarily to express other emotions, and it shows in their
personality characteristics. Many personality constructs are closely related
to specific emotions (depression to sadness, trait anxiety to fear, security to
happiness, and so forth), and Malatesta’s evidence suggests links between
characteristic expressive patterns and personality assessments. What shows
on the face is a valid hint concerning a long and biased history of emotional
experience and expression that can be tapped more deeply by measures of
character or personality. (Of course, some of the continuity may be due to
temperament, which does not greatly alter our present conclusions about

Emotion Patterns in Attachment Relationships. Because of the social

nature of emotions, their shaping effects on development are particularly
evident in social relationships. Research on infant-caregiver attachment
provides clear evidence of how emotions affect developmental pathways
involving relationships (e.g. Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978;
Bowlby, 1980;Bretherton & Waters, 1985;Sroufe, 1979). Different infants
develop different types of emotion-based attachment relationships with a
caregiver, and these variations seem to have substantial effects on later
relationships and personality. Each type involves a distinctive configura-
tion of emotions about emotions-joy, anger, fear, or some other emotion
experienced with love-which shapes the attachment relationship.
Ainsworth and her colleagues describe three major patterns of attach-
ment in one-year-old infants, labelled secure, anxious/ambivalent , and
avoidant. The secure children, whose mothers were observed over a period
of months to be generally sensitive and responsive to the infants’ needs,
were frequently in a positive emotional state and tended comfortably to

explore novel environments from the secure base of the mother. The
anxious/ambivalent infants, whose mothers were less predictable and less
reliably available, seemed especially prone to fear and angry protests and
were preoccupied with their mother’s whereabouts during a laboratory
observation period. The avoidant infants, whose mothers seemed uncom-
fortable with physical contact and systematically redirected the infants’ bids
for contact, seemed to have partially suppressed what Bowlby (1980) calls
their “attachment behavioral sytem”. That is, in emotion-theory terms,
they had learned by the end of the first year of life to regulate their fear and
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their desire for attachment by detaching to some extent, using the mother
for protection but not expecting much affection. These attachment pat-
terns seem to show substantial stability in development beyond infancy,
even into adulthood (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985; Main, in press),
although they can be changed by major alterations in the emotional climate
of the family.
In several recent studies, Hazan and Shaver have found the same three
attachment organisations among adult romantic partners (Brennan,
Hazan, & Shaver, 1989; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Shaver, Hazan, & Brad-
shaw, 1988). As with infants, emotions other than love are linked to the
relationship and help shape it. Secure adults find it relatively easy to trust
partners, are less often anxious, and are less afraid of various kinds of
threats to the relationship. Anxious/ambivalent adults (often called “en-
meshed”) are the most afraid of abandonment by partners, the most
jealous, the most prone to angry denunciations. Avoidant adults are the
least willing to get involved in intimate relationships, the most likely to
have casual sexual affairs, and the most likely to say they have trouble
understanding their feelings about relationships. These three kinds of
adults recall their parents in terms very similar to those used by Ainsworth
to describe the mothers of the corresponding three kinds of infants.
In describing the emotional make-up for each of these attachment styles,
Hazan and Shaver focus on emotion appraisals and self-control proce-
dures. Secure children and adults express emotions relatively freely and
are quick to be soothed when an attachment figure responds to their
negative emotions. Anxious/ambivalent children and adults seem to have
learned that protest is sometimes effective in attracting the attention and
support of attachment figures. Avoidant children and adults seem to have
learned to deny, suppress, or “deactivate” (Bowlby, 1980) certain emo-
tions whose expression has not led, early in life, to satisfactory parental
Although the attachment styles are usually linked with individuals,
because people often have a dominant style, it is important to note that the
distinct developmental pathways for each style may co-exist in a single
person. Many people seem to show different styles in different relation-

ships. A person may, for example, show a secure style in most close
relationships but an anxioudambivalent one in some.

Emotional Splitting and the Effects of Abuse. Any strong, recumng

emotional experience can shape development, producing a distinct de-
velopmental pathway. One such distinct pathway is multiple personality,
which seems to be produced by the emotional experience of child abuse
(Fischer & Pipp, 1984a). In nearly all cases of multiple personality, the
person experienced extreme physical and/or sexual abuse as a child (Kluft
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1985). During childhood the child’s parents or other important caregivers

sometimes showed affection toward the child and took care of him or her.
But at other times they abused the child, producing strong, mostly negative
emotions, which shaped the child’s development. To deal with the diver-
gent emotional situations, the child split the self into distinct personalities
(Bliss, 1980; Fagan & McMahon, 1984).
The different personalities seem to be organised around distinct domi-
nant emotions (Bower, 1981), often connected with the abuse. In adults,
one or more of the personalities are typically built directly upon the earlier
abuse situation(s) but with the roles reversed so that the person is in
control rather than subject to abuse. For example, a woman who was
sexually abused as a child may have one personality that is flirtatious and
promiscuous. A man subjected to physical abuse as a child may have one
personality that is violent and abusive. Research on numerous cases shows
similar patterns, with the personalities typically differing in their dominant
emotions. Other forms of dissociative disorders, such as hysteria and
borderline personality, also seem to be produced by child abuse and to
involve emotions organising personality (Kluft, 1985; see also Cicchetti, in
In borderline personality, the dominant emotional organisation is a split
between positive and negative (Kernberg, 1976). The person divides
people into good ones, who are on his or her side, and bad ones who are
against him or her and not to be trusted. In the extreme, the person will
even treat an individual such as a therapist as two different people, one
good and one bad. For example, after a vacation during which the therapist
and patient do not meet, the patient may insist that the bad therapist who
went away is not the same person as the good therapist who saw the patient
before the vacation.
Emotional splitting is not limited to multiple or borderline personali-
ties. Although the extreme emotions induced by child abuse produce
extreme effects, splitting by emotional valence is a basic property of human
mental life (Osgood et al., 1957; Sullivan, 1953). This phenomenon is
reflected in the superordinate division between positive and negative for
the emotion categories (Fig. 2). Normal children organise much of their

experience into distinct development pathways for positive and negative.

We have investigated the development of splitting from early childhood in
a series of studies of nice and mean social interactions. In presenting the
developmental component of our theory, we will focus on these studies of
splitting to illustrate how to analyse the ways emotions shape development.


Cognition involves organisations of behaviour over which people exercise
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some control, and emotion involves action tendencies that shape the
organisation of behaviour, shifting the way people control their actions,
thoughts, and feelings. A general theory of the organisation of behaviour
should take account of both types of organising influences. In most cases,
cognition and emotion are not really separable processes; there are no
separate compartments in the mind for cognition and emotion but only
ongoing behaviour that includes both cognition and emotion intertwined.
In development, what changes is the organisation of behaviour, indepen-
dent of whether that behaviour fits under the rubric of cognition or
emotion. More specifically, behaviour is organised in terms of hierarchi-
cally structured skills, and what develops is children’s ability to construct
and control those skills (Fischer, 1980). The action tendencies produced by
emotions are an important influence on the organisation and development
of the skills. At the same time, the changing control structures produce
development in the various components of the emotion process (Fig. 1). In
this way emotions shape skill control structures and are also shaped by
The concept of skill as it is used in everyday English has several
characteristics that are useful for analysing emotional development. First,
it indicates that the person is controlling something about his or her own
behaviour, and the behaviour does not have to be either “cognitive” or
“emotional”. A person can be skilled not only at doing long division or
writing effective prose, but also at expressing love, controlling fear, or
helping others to experience their (suppressed) anger.
Secondly, it implicates both person and environment, in contrast to
concepts such as competence or intelligence in theories like those of Piaget
(1983), Chomsky (1965), Gardner (1983), and Case (1985). In English
usage, a skill is an ability to carry out a set of actions in a particular context.
A person has a skill for building wooden furniture, a skill for driving a car
with a standard shift, or a skill for pretending about emotions with
preschoo1,children. Even a switch to a different kind of building material, a
different car, or children of a different age changes the skill. A skill is a
characteristic of aperson-in-a-context. A change in either the person or the
context changes the skill (Fogel & Thelen, 1987).

Starting with this concept of skill,our theory provides a framework with

specific constructs and methods for predicting and explaining developmen-
tal sequences in children’s skills. A skill is defined as the child’s ability to
control variations in his or her own actions and mental processes in a
particular context. Skill theory specifies both general properties of skills
that characterise the broad sweep of development and local properties that
specify how individual skills are directly tied to particular contexts. The
child develops a skill in a particular task domain and must then work to
generalise that skill to other task domains (Fischer & Farrar, 1987).
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Development does not automatically produce broadly applicable com-

petencies but instead involves the gradual and laborious construction and
generalisation of skilIs.
Predicting emotional development therefore necessitates beginning with
a specific domain for analysing skills and performing a specific analysis of
what children must control in that domain. The constructs and methods of
skill theory provide guidelines for how to do that skill analysis and how to
use it to predict development. We will outline a few skill analyses below for
the development of emotion-related scripts. More extensive guides to skill
analysis and methods are available elsewhere (Fischer, 1980; Fischer, Pipp,
& Bullock, 1984; Rose & Fischer, 1989).
Unlike most developmental theories, skill theory relates development to
variations in context, experience, and organismic state. Both development
and these other variations are characterised in terms of detailed develop-
mental scales, which are derived from a hierarchy of skill levels and a set of
rules for transforming skills into more complex forms within a level.
Behaviour moves up and down these scales not only with development but
also in response to other mechanisms of variation (Fischer & Farrar, 1987).
One set of mechanisms of variation involve the effects of emotions.
Virtually all components of emotional behaviour-the various apprai-
sals, antecedents, responses, and self-control procedures-change with
development. With careful skill analyses, the theory should be useful for
predicting development of most of these components, individually or in
combination, for specific contexts. Our exposition here will emphasise the
scripts for anger and joy and the related scripts about social interactions
that evoke anger and joy (mean and nice interactions, respectively).
Besides outlining how the scripts for these basic emotions develop, we will
suggest how development spawns new subordinate-category emotions that
are variants and combinations of the original set of basic emotions. Barrett
and Campos (1987), Izard and Malatesta (1987), and Leventhal and
Scherer (1987) have pointed the general direction for some of these ideas.
What we have added is the apparatus of skill theory for analysing and
predicting emotional development, an apparatus that has been tested in
extensive research on many different kinds of skills at diverse ages.

Skill theory portrays developmental sequences at three different degrees

of detail, each tested in extensive empirical research. Successive tiers of
skills characterise the broad sweep of emotional development. Develop-
mental levels within each tier capture the middle range of change. The
detailed micro-development of skills is described by transformation rules
for skill acquisition. Our description will focus on tiers and levels.

Developmental Tiers: The Broad Sweep of

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The components of the emotion process are present in rudimentary form in
early infancy. Primitive species-specificaction tendencies for the basic and
superordinate emotions shape development from the start. Gradually,
these action tendencies lead the child to construct complex action scripts
that include key components of the emotional action tendencies. Progress
through a long series of developmental levels, taking many years, is
necessary for children to move from the primitive action tendencies of
early infancy to the emotion scripts that adults understand and use. Skills
at the later levels are built upon the more primitive skills from the earlier
levels, which do not disappear but become components of the later skills.
In broad sweep, the levels are grouped mto four developmental tiers,
which are associated approximately with particular age periods. Each tier
is characterised by a different type of skill unit-reflexes, sensorimotor
actions, representations, and abstractions, respectively, as shown in Table
3. Skills at each tier are control structures for variations in the respective
unit, which subsumes and organises skills from the prior tier, as well as
earlier tiers. Five-month-olds, for example, control variations in sensori-
motor actions, which include and organise variations in reflex compo-
nents. Three-year-olds control variations in representations, which include
and organise variations in sensorimotor-action components, which in turn
include and organise variations in reflex components.
The skill units are those structures that control a cluster of behaviours
including actions, perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. Researchers some-
times use the terms “representation” and “abstraction” to refer to inter-
nal, “merely” cognitive processes, which they contrast with action or
emotion. It is our contention that such a view distorts the reality of
behaviour and development. Just like a script, a representational or
abstract skill refers not only to what people understand but to what they do
and feel. A representational skill, for example, develops from and controls
sensorimotor actions, which include movements, perceptions, and feelings.
When a five-year-old girl falls down and hurts herself, the pain, tears, cries
for help, attempts to fix injuries, and associated behaviours are controlled
through her representational skills. Those representations subsume not

only talking about injury, pain, and sadness but also feeling and acting
upon injury, pain, and sadness. There is no sharp division of representa-
tion from action and feeling. For specialised purposes, researchers can
sometimes separate them, but in the development of real people they go
During the first tier, which develops mostly in the first four months of
life, babies gradually form the basic components of sensorimotor action,
which include movement, perception, and feeling. The reflex skills of this
tier begin with innate species-specific action components, conventionally
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called reflexes (Izard & Malatesta, 1987; Piaget, 1936/1952). These are not
the involuntary, automatic responses that are also called reflexes, such as
the eyeblink and knee jerk. Instead, they are early, primitive, voluntary
responses that the infant gradually establishes control over and combines
in more complex skills, as described by Fischer and Hogan (1989). Exam-
ples are closing the hand around an object that touches the palm or
focusing the eyes on an object that is in front of the face. Such early reflex
skills are severely limited in scope and adaptability, as evidenced by the
effects of posture. In the tonic neck reflex, for example, the positions of the
infant’s torso and arms fall into what looks like a fencing posture, which
limits looking to one side of the visual field.
Similarly, emotion reflex skills such as anger and joy produce emotional
behaviours in partial form, limited in scope and adaptability. By one
month, for example, most but not all components of the anger facial
expression are present, and the so-called “infant social smile” has begun to
occur by two months (Campos et al., 1983; Emde, Gaensbauer, & Har-
mon, 1976; Izard & Malatesta, 1987). During these first few months, the
infant gradually differentiates and coordinates many of the components of
emotional reactions. For the basic emotion of anger, for example, babies
are developing not only facial expressions of anger but also hitting,
clenching, staring, looking away, vocalising protest, and becoming tense.
These components are not fully co-ordinated into an anger action script
until the start of the next tier, at about four months.
In the second tier, the infant controls sensorimotor actions built from
co-ordinating and differentiating reflexes. As a result of this developmental
process, infants between four months and two years control broad, flexible
actions that operate relatively independently of many of the limits of early
infancy, such as postural constraints. For instance, with looking, babies can
skilfully turn their heads from side to side and visually follow a ball that is
moving irregularly in front of them, all the while adjusting eye movements,
head movements, and posture to keep the ball in view. They are not
prevented from looking by particular postures or by minor changes in
movements of the ball.
For basic emotions, we hypothesise, infants of about four months exhibit
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ar" =

I 1 1-1
c 3 "
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Representational I0S.l’ PS.Tl 6-7 yrs

Rp4/A 1 Systems of
representational systems, 10-12 yrs
which iire single abstract
A2 Abstract mappings [ r% -7 ‘I 14-16 yrs
A3 Abstract systems ++
[fly,= 7 ‘u.z] 18-20 yrs

A4 Systems of abstract
systems, which are single 24-26 yrs

’Plain capital letters designate reflex sets; bold capital letters designate sensorimotor sets; italic capital letters designate representational sets, and
script capital letters designate abstract sets. Multiple subscripts designate differentiated components of a set; whenever there is a horizontal arFow,
two or more subsets exist by definition, even when they are not expressly shown. Long straight lines and arrows designate a relation between sets or
systems. Brackets designate a single skill. See Fischer (1980) for elaboration.
bReflex structures continue at higher levels, as do sensorimotor and representational structures, but the formulas become so complex that they
have been omitted. For example, to fill in the sensorimotor structures in the representational tier, simply replace each representational set with the
sensorimotor formula for level S4.
‘These ages are the modal periods for emergence of optimal levels based on research with middle-class American and European children. They
may differ across cultures or social groups. Also, the first three levels, Rfl, 2, and 3. should still be considered tentative; data are not yet sufficient to
test them.


Hypothesised Sensorimotor Script for Infant Anger

Antecedents: Interfcrcnce with Goal-Directed Activity, Discomfo f l

Something or someone obstructs or interferes with the infant's freedom of movement or goal-
attainment, or causes discomfort to the infant.

Responses: Vigorour Protest, Resistance

The infant becomes energised and behaviourally organised to protest or resist the obstruction
or pain.
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The infant looks and sounds angry (e.g. face red, brows furled, voice raised and strident)
and may twist, turn away, resist the interference, or hit.
The infant focuses on the anger-inducing situation and refuses to be easily calmed or
distracted while the interference or pain persists.

Self-Control Procedures: Inhibition

By the end of the first year, the infant may try to inhibit his or her anger.

simple sensorimotor action patterns or scripts like those for anger and joy
presented in Tables 4 and 5 . This early development of sensorimotor
scripts demonstrates the shaping power of basic emotions. Indeed, for
every tier after the first (reflex), an outline of each basic-emotion script
develops early, taking the form of a complex cluster of components in a
sensorimotor, representational, or abstract skill. According to the
emotion-shaping hypothesis, this precocity arises because the emotion
action tendencies organise the scripts for the child, allowing him or her to
control a cluster of components without having to construct them all de
In the sensorimotor anger script, an infant appraises something as
obstructing or interfering with a goal or hurting her. She responds with a
cluster of species-specific anger behaviours, including facial expressions,
protest, resistance, and intensified goal-directed behaviours. Evidence
indicates that most of this cluster, including all the expressive components,
are co-ordinated by four months of age (Campos et al., 1983; Lewis, in
press; Stenberg, Emde, & Campos, 1983). Similarly, in the joy script
smiling and laughing become a co-ordinated part of positive social interac-
tion by four months of age. For example, on seeing a favourite person,
such as an older brother, a baby girl will show a full-blown joy response-
becoming excited, smiling, laughing, and reacting positively to play over-
tures from him. In this way, the cluster of joyful or angry behaviours fills
out most of the action script by approximately four months of age. Note,
however, that elaborations of the script that require co-ordinating one
action cluster with another develop later in the first or second year, as the
infant moves to higher levels within the sensorimotor 'tier.

Hypothesised Sensorimotor Script for Infant Joy

Antecedents: Desirable Event or Outcome

The infant receives or attains something wished or strived for, receives affection or praise.

Responses: Smiling, Communicating Good Feelings, Positive Mood

The infant smiles, laughs, is warm and sociable, communicates good feelings, acts energised
and excited, jumps up and down, hugs others.
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Self-Control Procedures: Not a Salient Issue

Development of representational skills at the third tier begins when

sensorimotor actions are co-ordinated to form simple representations
based in actions, which emerge at about two years of age. For example,
children represent themselves, their mothers, or a doll as carrying out an
action, such as grasping, walking, or being angry or happy (Pipp, Fischer,
& Jennings, 1987). These first skills in this tier demonstrate how represen-
tations include and organise variations in sensorimotor actions: In pretend-
ing that a doll is angry, two-year-olds co-ordinate a system for acting angry
(making an angry facial expression, hitting, yelling, or similar actions) with
a system for manipulating the doll. The result is a control structure for
making the doll act angry, a representational skill that organises the child’s
actions, perceptions, and feelings into an action script for anger.
Most of the evidence concerning the development of emotions in the
preschool years involves pretend play or spontaneous language, which are
both good indexes of the child’s everyday emotional life. Young children
readily become engrossed in play and show a wide range of spontaneous
emotions, including laughs, frowns, yelling, hitting, and even crying. Their
play typically concerns important themes and emotions from their every-
day lives, often to the point that the listener quickly learns about family
issues and conflicts (e.g. Watson & Getz, in press). Indeed, young chil-
dren’s emotional involvement in pretend play makes it the method of
choice for psychotherapists working with them (Harter, 1982).
The evidence from spontaneous language mostly deals with actions (as
well as language) in real-life situations at home. Some studies have
analysed actual behaviours at home, and others have examined maternal
reports of children’s language and behaviour (Bretherton et al., 1986).
The findings of language and pretend play converge on the same
conclusions about young children’s emotions. Representational skills orga-
nising the basic emotions and the positivehegative dimension emerge near
the beginning of this tier, as predicted by the emotion-shaping hypothesis.
In spontaneous language in real-life situations at home, two-year-olds

commonly talk about the basic emotions, using words like happy, love,
angry, mad, sad, afraid, and scared, as well as words relating to the posi-
tivelnegative superordinate dimension, such as nice, bad, like, and don’t
like (Bretherton et al., 1986; Dunn, Bretherton, & Munn, 1987; but see
also Bloom & Beckwith, 1989). In pretend play, two-year-olds make dolls
or other figures laugh, kiss, hit, cry, run away, and so forth, and often they
also state the relevant emotion, as in “Baby mad”.
Both sources of evidence show the clusters of actions that capture the
essence of the prototypic scripts for basic and superordinate emotions.
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Examples of 28-months-olds’ utterances for anger and joy show the antece-
dent and response components of the respective scripts: “Grandma mad. I
write on wall”. “I give a hug. Baby be happy” (Bretherton et al., 1986). As
we will elaborate later, these scripts become much more complex and
specific as the child co-ordinates and differentiates representations at
higher levels (Fischer & Elmendorf, 1986; Griffin, in press; Harter, 1986).
For instance, one child of six or seven years, talking with a friend about
some fights, said, “Sometimes when I hit you and then I want to comfort
you, you push me away because you’re still angry” (Bretherton e t al.,
The scripts children use for basic emotions are still a long way from the
adult scripts in Tables 1 and 2. Representational skills deal with concrete
events occumng with specific people or objects, not the generalised social
categories used in the adult scripts. Between two and nine years of age,
children build skills combining representations in more and more complex
ways, but continuing to deal with concrete events, closely tied to immedi-
ate experience, as in the statement of the child about fights with a friend.
By 10 to 12 years, this development leads to the emergence of abstract
skills and the beginning of the fourth tier.
As with representational skills, abstract skills are not internal, “merely”
cognitive processes. They are control structures that include and organise
representational skills, which in turn include and organise sensorimotor
actions, and so forth. The abstract control structures allow adolescents and
adults to organise their behaviour in terms of concepts such as personality
characteristics, social influences, and moral principles. In the adult script
for anger, categories such as illegitimacy, insult, and retaliation enter as
real components in people’s anger. Children do not behave in terms of
these abstract categories (although adults can use the categories to inter-
pret children’s behaviour), but adults truly act in terms of the categories.
An adult can become angry because something is illegitimate or insulting
rather than because it produces direct harm. For example, a worker may
become angry when a coworker is promoted illegimately (not according to
standard rules and procedures) but not when a different coworker is
promoted legimately, even though in both cases the worker herself is

passed over for promotion. It is with such abstract control structures that
people develop full action scripts for complex, socially constructed emo-
tions such as umae in Japanese culture or resentment in American culture.
According to the emotion-shaping hypothesis, 10- to 12-year-old chil-
dren will develop their first action scripts founded on abstract skills for the
basic emotions. These scripts will consist of a cluster of components
involving personality and social concepts like’those in Tables 1 and 2 and
fitting the prototypic script. They will be evident not only in children’s
categories but also in their perceptions and actions.
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Although we know of no research directly assessing the development of

such scripts for the basic emotions, there have been assessments of
interactions related to abstract categories such as kindness and responsibil-
ity that are relevant to socially constructed emotions. Kindness is related to
positive emotions like joy because it concerns making other people happy
(Lamborn, Fischer, & Pipp, 1990), and responsibility is related to the
emotion of guilt because people are responsible for righting wrongs of
which they are guilty (Fischer, Hand, & Russell, 1984). Before approxi-
mately 10 years, children understand kindness in terms of concrete inst-
ances, such as sharing lunch with someone who has none or fixing a
person’s broken watch. With the development of abstract skills at 10 to 12
years, these concrete instances are co-ordinated into a control structure
centered on an abstract concept of kindness, such as caring for people by
helping them when they are in need. Research on interpersonal under-
standing indicates that children begin at this age to perceive and discuss
deeply hidden emotions, such as repressed anger that people are not aware
of in themselves (Fischer & Pipp, 1984a; Selman, 1980).

Developmental Levels: Growing Complexity of

Emotions within Each Tier
The tiers charactense the broad sweep of development of emotional skills.
Within each tier, development proceeds through a series of four develop-
mental levels, beginning with the simplest form of skill for that tier and
building to more and more complex forms. At any specific age, children’s
skills are limited by an upper bound on the complexity of skills they can
produce and control. That limit, called the child’s optimal level, is determi-
ned by assessing the child’s skills under conditions that support the best
possible performance. The ages for levels in Table 3 indicate when Amer-
ican and European middle-class children have shown emergence of each
optimal level according to empirical research.

Skill Analysis and Methods for Predicting a Sequence. The 13 develop-

mental levels in Table 3 have been used successfully to predict develop-

mental sequences in several dozen empirical studies of various kinds of

skills, including emotion skills. According to our theory, they can similarly
be used to predict developmental sequences for any component of emo-
tions. What is required is (a) specification of task(s) and assessment
mntext(s), (b) a skill analysis of what children must control for each task in
the context, and (c) relation of the skill analysis to the skill structures of
tiers and levels to predict the sequence.
To illustrate this procedure, we will describe a developmental sequence
of emotionally organised social interactions that we predicted and tested in
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several studies: The development of mean and nice social interactions in a

pretend play situation with dolls (Fischer & Pipp, 1984a; Hand & Fischer,
1989; Rotenberg, 1988). We chose play because of the ease with which
children became emotionally involved and displayed a wide range of
emotional behaviours. The dolls were named after the child and friends or
siblings chosen by the child. We chose the categories mean and nice
because they are prominent categories for children and are closely tied to
emotions such as anger and joy in social interaction. They also embody the
superordinate emotional split between positive and negative.
To assess understanding of nice and mean interactions, we used several
different assessment conditions and tasks (a design feature that is crucial
for capturing the normal vanation in skill level children demonstrate in
real-life behaviour). In the high-support conditions designed to pull for
children’s optimal levels, an experimenter presented the child with a story
similar to the examples in the right-hand column of Table 6, using realistic
cardboard dolls that were easy to manipulate and that stood easily on their
own. The child was then asked to act out a.similar story. At least one such
story was used to assess each level. The stones were generally designed to
capture the children’s prototypes for nice and mean interactions. In several
spontaneous conditions, children were asked to make up their own stones
about nice and mean interactions. In all conditions children performed
stories instead of just telling them. Many stories, especially early in the
sequence in Table 6, could be performed with little or no verbal explana-
tion. Children were videotaped so that both their behaviours and their
verbal explanations could be coded.
Across several studies, more than 200 children and adolescents between
2 and 20 years of age were assessed. The predicted developmental sequ-
ence in Tabk 6 was tested in each individual person through a scalogram
procedure. Statistical tests strongly supported the sequence, with nearly all
children fitting predictions.
According to the skill analysis, each task required the control of one or
more distinct social-emotional categories in the dolls’ behaviour, with a
category comprising a cluster of related actions focusing on meadangry
behaviour or nicehappy behaviour. In terms of the emotion process model

A Developmental Sequence of Skills for Mean and Nice Social Interactions

Level Step Skill Ekamples in Play

Rpl: Single 1 Active agent: A penon Child makes one doll hit
Representational performs at least one another doll (mean) or give
Skills behaviour fitting a social- another doll candy (nice).
interaction category of mean
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or nice.
2 Behavioural category: A Child makes one doll act
penon performs at least two mean to another doll, hitting
behavioun fitting a category of it and saying, “I don’t like
mean or nice. you”. The second doll can be
3 Shifring behavioural categories: Child makes one doll act nice
One penon performs at least toa second doll, giving it
two behaviours fitting the candy and saying, “Let’s
category nice, as in Step 2, and play”. A third doll enters and
then a second person performs acts mean to the second doll,
at least two behaviours fitting hitting it and taking its ball. In
the category mean both cases, the second doll
can be passive.
Rp2: 4a ’ Combination of opposite Child makes one doll act both
Representational categories in a single person: nice and mean to a second
Mappings One person performs doll. saying “Let’s be
concurrent behaviours fitting friends”, giving the second
two categories, such as nice doll candy, and then hitting it
and mean. and saying, “Since we’re
friends, you should give me
your ball!” The second doll
can be passive throughout.
4b’ One-dimensional social Child makes one doll say
influence: The mean mean things and hit another
behaviours of one person doll, who responds by hitting
produce reciprocal mean and expressing dislike for the
behaviours in a second person. fint one. The second one’s
The same contingency can behaviour is clearly produced
occur for nice behavioun. by the first one’s behaviour.
5 One-dimensionalsocial With three dolls, child makes
influence with three people one tease the others, while a
behaving in similar ways: Same second one hits the others.
as Step 4b, but with three The third doll rejects both of
people interacting reciprocally the fint two because they are
in a mean way (or a nice way). mean.
6 Shifring one-dimensionalsocial With three dolls, child makes
influence: The nice behaviours one act friendly to a second
of one person produce one, who responds nicely.
reciprocal nice behaviours in a Then, a third doll hits the
second penon. Then, in a second one, who responds
separate story, the mean meanly.

TABLE 6 k o n t )

Rp2: behaviours of a third penon

produce reciprocal mean
Mappings (cont.) khaviom in the second
person. (Or a reciprocal mean
interaction am occur first. and
then a reciprocal nice
7 Onc-dimcnswnal social With three dolls, child makes
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inpuence with three peopk one act friendly to others,

behaving in opposite wys: The while a second one hits
nice behavioun of one person others. The third doll
and the mean behaviours of a responds nicely to the brst
second person produce doll and meanly to the
reciprocal nice and mean second.
behaviours in a third penon.
Rp3: 8 Two-ditnenswd social Child makes one doll initiate
Representational influence: Two poopk interact friendship with a second doll
Systems in ways fitting opposite but in a mean way. The
categories. such as that the first second OM, confused about
one acts both nice and mean the dmepancy, declines the
and the second one responds friendship because of the
with reciprocal behavioun in meanness. The first then
the same categories. aplogises and makes another
friendly gesture, which the
second one responds to
9 Two-dimensionalsocial With three dolls, child makes
influence wirh threepeople: one doll act friendly to a
Same as Step 8 but with thpe second one. while a third
people interacting reciprocally initiates play in a mean way.
according to opposite The second one acts friendly
categories. to the first one and rejects the
third. pointing out the third's
meanness. The third then
apologises for being mean,
while the first does something
new that is mean. The second
accepts the third one's
apology and rejects the first
one. pointing out the change
in behaviour.
Rp4/AI: Single 10 Single abstract control strucrure With three characters, child
Abstract Skills integrating opposite social makes one act friendly to a
behaviours: Two interactions second, while a third initiates
involving opposite behavioun play in a mean way. The
(as in Step 8) co-ordinated in second character responds to
terms of an abstract control each accordingly, but then
structure, such as that learns that the nice one had
intentions matter more than mean intentions while the
actions. mean one had nice intentions.

TABLE 6 (cont)

10 (cont.) The second character then

changes his or her behaviour
to each t o match their
intentions and explains that
he or she cares more about
people's intentions than their
11 Shifring abstract control First, child performs a story
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structures, each integrating like Step 10. Then child shifts

opposite social behaviours: to a different story, as
First, two interactions follows: With three
involving opposite behaviours characters, child makes two
are co-ordinated in terms of of them act mean to a third.
one control structure, such as The first one takes
intention (as in Step 10). Then responsibility for her
two interactions involving behaviour by admitting blame
opposite behaviours are and accepting the
explained in terms of a consequences of her action.
different abstraction, such as The second one takes no such
responsibility: What matters is responsibility. The third one
whether people take forgives the one who took
responsibility for the harm responsibility and refuses to
they do. forgive the one who did not,
because. she says, she cares
about whether people take
responsibility for the harm
they do.
A2: Abstract 12 Control structure relating two With three characters, child
Mappings abstractions that integrate makes two of them act nice on
opposite social behaviours: the surface to a third, both
Two interactions involving with the intention of
opposite behavioun are co- deceiving her into doing their
ordinated in terms of a control homework. When the deceit
structure relating two is discovered by the third one,
abstractions, such as intention the first one takes
and responsibility: People who responsibility for her deceit
have a deceitful intention can by admitting her intention
be forgiven if they take and re-establishing her
responsibility in a way that honesty. But the second one
undoes the deceit. does not show such
responsibility. The third
character forgives the first
one, but not the second,
because she cares about
whether people take
responsibility for their
deceitful intention and undo
the deceit.

Note: Portions of this table are adapted with permission from Fischer & Pipp (1984a).
'Steps 4a and 4b develop at approximately the same time.

in Fig. 1, the levels developed toward more complex appraisals and action
tendencies and usually more socially adaptive forms of anger. For the first
level assessed, the child had to make the doll carry out actions fitting a
category of either mean or nice. The later levels entailed relating various
instances of mean and nice categories to each other in interactions among
The complete sequence included multiple steps for each level, as shown
in Table 6. These steps were predicted via both levels and micro-
developmental transformation rules (which will be explained later). The
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general analysis of the main step at each level will be presented in the
exposition of the levels. A detailed description of the skill analysis for the
entire sequence is available on request from the authors.

Four Levels of Representational Skills. Development proceeds through

four levels of control structures within each tier. Table 3 presents the
formulas defining the structures for all levels. The explication of the levels
will concentrate especially on the representational tier and provide briefer
descriptions of levels in the other tiers. Development of control structures
moves from single representational skills to mappings of two or more
representational skills, then to systems co-ordinating several mappings,
and finally to systems co-ordinating several systems. This last level pro-
duces a new type of control structure, an abstract skill, which begins
the next tier. For every tier, a similar series of levels occurs, as shown in
Table 3.
In single representations, which first develop between 18 and 24 months,
children initially make a doll carry out a single action tied to an emotion,
0, such as a mean or angry action of hitting someone, or a nice action of
hugging someone or sharing food (Step 1in Table 6). Within a few months
of the emergence of these simple emotion skills, children cluster two or
more actions into a behavioural category for mean or nice, OM or ON,
respectively (Step 2). (Subscripts identify the specific category-Mean or
Nice.) For example, in a category for mean, they make a doll hit another
doll, take away its toy, and say, “I don’t like you!”
It is at this level that children also produce simple prototypic clusters of
actions fitting the simplest scripts for the basic emotions, as in “Grandma
mad. I write on wall” or “I give a hug. Baby be happy”. In the terms of
Table 6, these scripts comprise behavioural categories for anger, OA, and
joy, O,, which are closely related to the scripts for mean and nice. Notice
that a single categorykript can include the actions of two people. At
higher levels these people’s actions will be differentiated into separate
roles, with a richer definition of the properties of each role (Pipp et al.,
In mappings, which emerge at approximately four years of age, children
co-ordinate two behavioural categories into a role relation. At Step 4b, one

person is mean to another, who is mean in return because of the first one’s
meanness, [OM- PM]. The causal connection is crucial in that it indicates
the relation between the two people’s behaviours, marked by the horizon-
tal line in the skill formula. At a much earlier age, children can make all
people be mean to each other, but without any reciprocity or other
specified relation between the people’s behaviours. Mappings thus produce
a more sophisticated appraisal of the significance of mean behaviour and a
more differentiated response.
In terms of the script for anger, children divide it into two concrete roles,
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where one person becomes angry because of something another one did,
[OM-PA](Fabes, Eisenberg, McCormick, & Wilson, 1988; Trabasso,
Stein, & Johnson, 1981). Both people act in the script in relation to each
other, showing multiple relevant behaviours fitting their roles.
Children also control other simple mappings concerning emotions, such
as that a person’s concrete intention relates to his actions. The emotional
appraisal is affected by this mapping. For example, if someone is trying to
be helpful and accidentally hurts another, then he is not truly mean and his
behaviour does not warrant anger (Fischer & Elmendorf, 1986). In another
type of mapping, one person’s behaviour simultaneously fits two opposing
categories, such as nice and mean, [ON-O M ] (Step 4a). or happy and
sad, [OH-OsJ (Fischer & Pipp, 1984a; Hand, 1982). In the same way,
any behaviour that requires the co-ordination of several emotion categor-
ies in a simple relation can develop at this level, so long as its development
is supported by the child’s environment.
With the development of systems at approximately six years, children
can co-ordinate several mappings in a single skill. These systems produce
complex social-emotional scripts for interactions among concrete people
and events, with dramatic growth in the complexity of emotion appraisals
and responses in the scripts. At Step 8 in Table 6, children integrate mean
and nice behaviours in two people interacting reciprocally, [OM.N c-JpM.N].
One person may say he would like to be friends with the second, while at
the same time he hits the second one on the arm. The second responds with
a mean behaviour (rejection of the friendship bid) and a simultaneous nice
one (statement that he would like to be friends if the other person would
act nice).
In general, as children extend and consolidate skills at this level, they
come to recognise many of the complexities of emotions in social interac-
tions, such as that people often experience simultaneous conflicting emo-
tions (Donaldson & Westerman, 1986; Fischer & Pipp, 1984a; Harter &
Buddin, 1987; Wiggers & van Lieshout, 1985) and that they can control
their own emotional reactions not only by changing the emotion-arousing
situation but also by changing their own interpretation of the situation
(Band & Weisz, 1988).
At the fourth level, which emerges at 10 to 12 years, two or more such

concrete systems are co-ordinated to form a single abstract skill, producing

a new control structure concerning the general nature of events, people, or
objects. The control structure for Step 10 grows from a comparison of two
social interactions, both concerning simultaneous mean and nice actions:
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The comparison focuses on the intention behind the actions-intentions

matter more than actions-which is simultaneously a co-ordination of the
two concrete interactions and a single abstraction, [ al].Within this
control structure, it is better to have a nice intention even though the
accompanying action was mean than to have a nice action hiding a mean
intention. Research shows that similar emotion-related abstract skills
involving kindness and responsibility develop at about this age (Fischer &
Lamborn, 1989).

LeveLF in Other Tiers. With single abstract skills the person has entered
a new tier, with a new type of control structure. One result is a new type of
emotion script, an adult-like script made up of general personality and
social concepts rather than concrete behavioural categories. This script
develops through four levels for the co-ordination of abstract skills, as
shown in Table 3. In the sequence for mean and nice, Step 12 shows an
example of the co-ordination of two categories in a mapping to specify the
form of guilt, [ ?tl- VR]: A person’s deceitful intention implies that he or
she must take responsibility for the consequences of his or her deceit in
such a way as to undo it. Later levels bring even more sophisticated skills,
such as a system specifymg how different types of intention imply different
types of responsibility (Fischer, Hand, & Russell, 1984).
Here is where late adolescents and young adults build complex emotion
scripts like those in Tables 1 and 2. In the anger script in Table 1, concepts
such as illegitimate interruption, retaliation, restoration of justice, and
redefinition of the situation all require high-level skills. Developing and co-
ordinating such concepts to form this sort of script occurs at later levels
within the abstract tier, when the scripts for the most sophisticated sub-
ordinate emotions also develop. These advanced scripts are complex
differentiations of the first scripts based on abstract skills, which are
hypothesised to emerge at about 10 to 12 years.
The two tiers of infancy include a similar series of developmental levels
(Table 3). which are supported by empirical research (Fischer & Hogan,
1989). Space precludes extensive treatment of these developmental pat-
terns, but a few examples will illustrate how the levels explain early

The first few months of life are often vaguely portrayed as a time when
the infant cannot do very much, but is somehow moving toward getting his/
her actions together. The levels of the reflex tier go beyond these vague
descriptions to provide a model of development in the first four months. The
first co-ordinations of reflexes into mappings appear at about one and a
half to two months of age, when infants begin to look at their mothers’ eyes
when they hear her voice (Haith, Bergman, & Moore, 1977) or smile to the
sight of her face (Kaye & Fogel, 1980; Legerstee, Pomerleau, Malcuit, &
Feider, 1987). By two and a half to three months, babies can control reflex
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systems, co-ordinating a number of behaviours. For example, in what is

often called a greeting response, infants listen to their mother’s voice, look
at her face, smile at her, and coo to her (Papousek & Papousek, 1979).
Development in the sensorimotor tier moves through four additional
levels. The single actions appearing at about four months of age comprise
what might be called sensorimotor categories, clusters of behaviours fitting
categories such as looking at a moving ball, being angry at having one’s
arm held still, being joyful at seeing one’s older brother, or being distres-
sed at one’s mother abruptly breaking off a positive social interaction
(Case et al., 1988, Study 2; Campos et al., 1983).
At about eight months, a wide array of sensorimotor mappings develop,
in which infants co-ordinate a few sensorimotor actions in a single map-
ping. For anger, infants show advances in the ways they can resist-trying
to push away the hand of someone interfering with their actions or to grab
back a cookie that has been taken away (Campos et al., 1983). They show a
spurt in distress at being separated from their mother, as if they are trying
to make her come back (Emde et al., 1976). They also begin to consistently
use thumbsucking to quiet themselves, which was much more haphazard at
earlier ages (Fogel & Thelen, 1987). And they use emotional information
from their caregivers’ facial and vocal expressions to evaluate novel people
or objects-a phenomenon called social referencing (Campos et aI., 1983).
With the emergence of sensorimotor systems at about 12 to 13 months,
infants show further major advances such as pretending to be sad, mad, or
happy (Kuaynski, Zahn-Waxler, & Radke-Yarrow, 1987; Watson &
Fixher, 1977), beginning to use words for basic and superordinate emo-
tions, and we hypothesise, using emotional information and expression to
do sensorimotor negotiation with the mother. Finally, at about two years,
children construct single representational skills by co-ordinating sensor-
imotor systems into higher-order systems.

Subordinate Emotions. Our focus has been primarily on basic and

superordinate emotions. The development of subordinate emotions re-
quires both higher developmental levels and more specific social experi-
ences than the development of basic or superordinate emotions, as we have
argued elsewhere (Fischer et al., 1988). Indeed, subordinate emotions are

predicted to develop at later levels in every tier because they require more
complex scripts. They always entail the addition of something to basic
emotion scripts: a specific intensity (as in bliss and contentment,
annoyance and fury); an emotion about an emotion or a combination of
emotions (jealousy, resentment); a particular set of expectations, life
situations, or social roles (loneliness, worry, jealousy); or a set of cultural
definitions (amae in Japan, Morsbach & Tyler, 1986;or sungkan in Java,
Geertz, 1974).
Some emotions that belong at the subordinate layer according to our
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research (Fig. 2) have been proposed as basic emotions by other

researchers-for example, shame, guilt, contempt , and/or pride (Izard,
1977;Izard & Malatesta, 1987;Scheff, in press). These categories do seem
to develop during infancy, like the basic emotions. But according to both
our analysis and the research evidence, they develop late in infancy, at the
higher sensorimotor levels (Case et al., 1988,Study 1; Kagan, 1987;Lewis,
in press; Stipek, 1983), and they are elaborated during the preschool years
(Griffin, 1988;Zahn-Waxler, Kochanska, Krupnick, & McKnew, 1990).

Transformation Rules: Microdevelopment of Emotions. The multiple

steps per level for mean and nice interactions shown in Table 6 involve the
finest grain of developmental change. The steps are predicted by means of
a small set of transformation rules specifying how skills can be co-ordinated
and differentiated within a level. The rules can be used to predict any
number of steps per level, with the exact number varying as a function of
context, domain, person, measurement sensitivity, and other factors. They
thus provide a means for predicting detailed developmental sequences for
various aspects of emotions, as with the scripts for nice and mean interac-
tion. A full explication of the transformations is provided in Fischer (1980).

Emotional Splitting in the Mean/Nice Sequence

The research on mean and nice interactions not only demonstrates the
levels and steps of emotional development but also illustrates how emo-
tional splitting develops. The fundamental human proclivity to split positive
and negative experiences is evident in both the meadnice sequence and the
errors or distortions children make when they simplify meadnice tasks. In
many different ways, children split people and interactions into positive
and negative.
The meadnice sequence (Table 6) starts off with children automatically
splitting mean and nice. At the early steps, each person acts either mean or
nice, not both at the same time. Gradually, children become able to
respond to some things in the real world as simultaneously positive and
negative, but even then they show a strong tendency to split in other
situations. The first progress toward overcoming the splitting comes with
Step 4a, where one person is mean and nice simultaneously. When faced
with an interaction between two people, however, children return to
splitting, as in Step 4b, where two people act mean to each other, or they
both act nice. The consideration of two people instead of one thus leads to
the disappearance of positivehegative integration. In preschool children’s
play and talk, such emotional splitting seems to be much more common
than the positivehegative integration of Step 4a (Donaldson & Wester-
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man, 1986; Fischer & Pipp, 1984a; Hand, 1982; Hams, 1985; Harter &
Buddin, 1987).
Gradually, at higher steps, children extend the integration of mean and
nice behaviours. First, at Step 7 one person shows simultaneous mean and
nice behaviours while the other people remain split-one mean and the
other nice. Then at Steps 8 and beyond, two or three people show
simultaneous mean and nice behaviours reciprocally with each other.
Even at the highest steps, however, the shaping effects of positive and
negative remain evident. The action scripts at Steps 10 to 12 emphasise
whether the person’s behaviour is essentially good (based on a positive
intention) or essentially bad (based on a negative intention).
The pervasiveness of positivehegative splitting is also evident when
children are faced with a story too hard for them. In our research, children
routinely simplify stones integrating mean and nice behaviours by dividing
them into two separate stones, one about being mean and one about being
nice (Hand, 1982). With the story at Step 8, which concerns two people
acting simultaneously mean and nice to each other, five- to seven-year-olds
commonly simplified the story by splitting it along emotional grounds into
two separate stones. First, they told a story about a mean reciprocal
interaction (like Step 4b), and then they shifted to a second story about a
nice reciprocal interaction (a different version of Step 4b). In some cases,
the children even indicated that the two interactions were separated in
time, despite their simultaneity in the original modelled story. The power-
ful organising effects of emotions lead to many such instances of splitting
(Fischer & Pipp, 1984a; Harter & Buddin, 1987).
We hypothesise that this kind of emotion-based simplification will be
evident in the errors or distortions made by people of all ages when they
are faced with tasks that are too difficult for them or when they are
experiencing strong emotions. In a state of anger, for example, social
understanding is likely to be dominated by the anger action tendency. As a
result, an angry person will have difficulty seeing the anger-inducing
person as both positive and negative. Instead, anger will bias the person’s
interpretation toward elaboration of the negative-the other person’s
offensiveness and interference with one’s goals.

Natural Variations in Developmental Level and

their Implications for Research
Contrary to common assumptions about development, people do not
perform at a single developmental level but instead show variations in level
(Biggs & Collis, 1982; Fischer, 1980; Flavell, 1982; Fogel & Thelen,
1987)-what Piaget (1941) called decalage. These variations occur with
changes in task, domain, or emotional state and also from moment to
moment within a single context, as shown with research using scales Like
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the one for mean and nice. Skill theory incorporates these variations into
its explanations of development and thus differs sharply from the theories
of Piaget and most neo-Piagetians. People’s skill or competence is not fixed
at a particular step on a developmental scale but varies systematically
across a wide range. This principle applies to emotional as well as cognitive
Researchers must deal with these variations or they will misrepresent
emotional development. For three types of variations, there has been
sufficient research to provide guidelines for future investigation: task
effects, optimal level, and functional level. Detailed explications are
available in several articles (Fischer & Farrar, 1987; Fischer & Hogan,
1989; Fischer & Pipp, 1984b).
First, the particular tusk helps to organize the person’s skill. When the
task is changed, the skill is changed. Predicting emotional development
requires first specifying a task and analysing how that task is done. Starting
with this specification and analysis, a researcher can use the concepts and
methods of skill theory to predict both sequences of development and
patterns of variation. Developmental order is greatest when task is held
constant, or as nearly constant as possible. In the meadnice sequence, all
tasks in the scale used the same set of materials, the same basic procedures,
and similar story content. When tasks vary, children must generalise their
skills across those tasks; as a result there is much less developmental order
and much more variability. Research on emotional development must
therefore deal with task effects, or it is doomed to failure.
Across tasks, the variability in children’s skills is limited by their optimal
level, the upper bound on the complexity of skills that was discussed
earlier. The optimal level sets an upper limit on how high in any develop-
mental sequence a child’s performance can go. Even under the best testing
conditions, performance does not go beyond the optimal level. For exam-
ple, instruction in how to perform a task is ineffective for tasks beyond the
optimal level (Fischer & Pipp, 1984b; Moshman & Franks, 1986; O’Brien
& Overton, 1982; Rotenberg, 1988). Conditions that help to optimise
performance include practice, familiarity of materials, clear definition of
task demands, and provision of cues that prime recall of key task compo-
nents. The modelling procedure in the meadnice studies (having an
experimenter demonstrate a story), when combined with practice, exem-
plifies an optimal level condition. Conditions that assess optimal level tend
to produce especially powerful developmental patterns because they mini-
mise level variations from other sources. Consequently, when the research
goal is documentation of developmental sequences, it is wise to use optimal
or near-optimal assessment conditions.
In non-optimal contexts, such as those used in most developmental
studies, the level that people show drops sharply. This lower level of
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performance is called the individual’s functional level for that context. In

the meadnice studies, for instance, seven-year-olds typically showed an
optimal level of Step 8 in Table 6. But when they made up their own stones
without the support of a model or memory prompt, their performance
plummeted on the average to Step 4b (Hand & Fischer, 1989; Rotenberg,
1988). This gap was robust: Conditions that might be expected to reduce it,
such as practice and instruction, had no such effect. Also, the gap appears
to become even larger as children grow older. Most studies of emotional
development appear to have assessed functional rather than optimal level
and thus to have underestimated children’s emotional and cognitive matur-
By hypothesis, emotions also contribute to variations in developmental
level. If the action tendency of an emotion organises behaviour in a certain
way, then it should produce higher developmental levels for tasks where
that organisation fits and lower levels where that organisation interferes.
Anger, for instance, facilitates resistance and attack and may produce
higher developmental levels on tasks that demand those behaviours. At the
same time it interferes with co-operation and sharing and may produce
lower levels on tasks requiring those behaviours. In this way, specific
emotions such as anger may have potent effects on developmental level.


Most of our argument thus far has focused on the basic and superordinate
emotions in infancy and childhood. This focus is important €or understand-
ing how emotions develop and how they shape development, but it should
not be taken to mean that emotions are simple phenomena. There are
simple principles underlying them, we believe, but emotions and emotional
experiences can be remarkably complex, especially in adults. Much of the
literature on emotions concentrates on the complexities of adult emotions
(de Rivera, 1986; Harrt, 1986; Roseman, 1984; Scherer, 1988). It is hoped
that the explanation of emotion scripts at the highest developmental levels
has provided some sense of how that complexity and subtlety develop.

Subordinate-category emotions (the bottom layer in Fig. 2) can become

complex and subtle, showing wide differences across cultures and indi-
viduals (Fischer et al., 1988),but the categories named by a culture provide
only part of the picture. The emotion lexicon runs out of words for the
most complex emotional experiences. Adults with high-level abstract skills
and extensive sociaYemotiona1 experience can become immersed in
idiosyncratic emotion scripts that can be captured only by detailed
explanation-or poetry. These explanations include multiple emotions
about emotions and subtle refinements of the appraisal process.
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Emotions during adulthood become increasingly extended over time,

drawing together in the appraisal process events from long in the past and
speculations about the future. Also, adults can sustain their emotional
reactions through systems relating numerous components in a single skill:
They can keep the emotion alive through an internal rumination. Ahab, in
Moby Dick,sustained his rage at the whale throughout months and years
of searching.
Consider a 30-year-old man working for the same business for several
years. His job has been important to him and has helped to shape his
professional identity as a mental health worker. Like most people, he has a
long history of both rewards and disappointments in his job. He has
enjoyed his work and received praise and promotion for his success. He
respects his employer and feels gratitude for the positive effects his job has
had on his career.
One disappointment has been that he has felt slighted in the assignment
of office space. In his mind, this issue has become representative of the
organisation’s esteem for the individual worker. Yet he has suppressed any
complaints about his office assignment, because the organisation is not
wealthy and no one has a luxurious office, not even the boss. Also, there
are no clear rules for determining seniority or rank so as to decide simply
who merits which office. Because of his overall satisfaction with his job he
has tried to ignore this problem.
When the organisation moved to another building, where offices had to
be re-assigned, his old feelings of being undervalued and mistreated were
reactivated. He found himself feeling resentment toward the boss and the
organisation and envy toward workers with better offices. At times he told
himself that his feelings were not justified. At other times, he felt that he
could not leave the issue unresolved because his negative emotions were
interfering with his relationships with his colleagues and the organisation.
In this situation, it is hard to isolate a unitary emotion experience that
can be given a single name from the emotion lexicon. Within the experi-
ence are elements of all five of the basic-emotion families in Fig. 2. The use
of subordinate emotion categories does not reduce the number of emo-
tions. Included are elements of resentment, gratitude, envy, guilt, rage,
and wariness, among others. These different components of the complete

emotion experience are sometimes felt in tandem and sometimes in succes-

sion. At any one moment a given piece of the mixture may be ascendant-
the individual focuses on the rage, or the resentment, or the gratitude. But
always the countervailing feelings are there, complicating any simple
emotional description.
The developmental pathway to this complex state of mind is a 30-year
journey through innumerable steps moving from sensorimotor emotions in
early infancy to emotion scripts for concrete events and people in child-
hood and eventually to scripts based on general personality and social
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categories in adulthood. Like all skills, emotions thus move from the
simplicitly of immaturity to a complexity in adulthood' that can be under-
stood only through developmental explication.

Manuscript received 18 April 1989

Revised manuscript received 9 January 1990

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