Developing Sensitivity to Complex Facial Expressions in Adolescence

Open Access
Motta-Mena, Natalie
Graduate Program:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
October 29, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Kathyrn Suzanne Scherf, Thesis Advisor
  • Adolescence
  • puberty
  • facial expressions
The ability to produce and interpret facial expressions enables humans to communicate vital information in reciprocal social exchanges. In the first years of life, human infants begin to develop the ability to perceive and categorize basic emotional expressions (e.g. happy, sad, angry); however, these abilities continue to improve throughout childhood and into adolescence. Interestingly, very little is known about the developmental trajectory of sensitivity to more socially complex emotional expressions such as resentment, envy, or contempt. Importantly, the research that does exist has been conducted almost exclusively in atypical populations. In this project, we hypothesized that adolescence would be a key period for the emergence of sensitivity to socially complex expressions, largely because a subset of these expressions tend to provide signals about the status of more intimate relationships (i.e., with sexual and romantic partners and/or competitors) that adolescents are only beginning to form with their peers. We also hypothesized that sensitivity to these complex expressions would be fundamentally related to pubertal maturation, which likely influences the motivation to form more intimate, romantic, and sexual relationships in adolescence. To evaluate these hypotheses, we conducted two experiments to measure developmental changes in perceptual sensitivity to detect both basic (e.g., happy) and complex emotional expressions in four groups: pre-pubescent children (ages 6-8), adolescents in early versus later stages of pubertal development (ages 11-14), and sexually mature adults (ages 20-25). We report several age-related changes from childhood to adulthood as well as puberty-related changes in the absence of age-related changes from early pubertal development to late pubertal development.