Development of Children's Understanding of Ambivalence and Causal Theories of Emotions

Sally K. Donaldson, Michael A. Westerman

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This study investigated a proposed four-stage developmental sequence in children's understanding of ambivalence. At the highest level of this sequence, children understand that contradictory feelings can coexist at the same time toward the same target in terms of a framework in which it is recognized that the two feelings influence one another. Sixty subjects, including twenty 4- to 5-year-olds, twenty 7- to 8-year-olds, and twenty 10- to 11-year-olds, were presented with two tape recorded stories in which the protagonist could be construed as feeling happy and sad (Story A) and anger and love (Story B). Raters scored the subjects' responses to a structured interview about the stories in terms of the proposed sequence. In addition, separate parts of the protocols were assessed independently with respect to a proposed sequence in children's causal theories of emotions. According to this sequence, children's understanding of what makes sad and angry feelings come and go develops from an externally based theory, in which feelings are wedded to events, to an internally based theory, in which feelings largely depend on memories, thoughts, and attitudes. The results provided strong support for both hypothesized developmental progressions. Also, as predicted, significant relationships were found between the two domains of children's understanding of emotions. This result is discussed in terms of the view that understanding that internal states mediate emotional responses may be an important component in understanding ambivalence, and also with respect to the possibility that the motivation to integrate conflicting feelings may play a role in promoting the external to internal shift in children's causal theories of emotions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)655-662
Number of pages8
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1986

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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