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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Emotions as the product of body and mind: The hierarchical structure of folk concepts of mental life among US adults and children


How are emotions understood to relate to other aspects of mental life? Among US adults, concepts of mental life are anchored by a distinction between physiological sensations (BODY), social-emotional abilities (HEART), and perceptual-cognitive capacities (MIND); these conceptual units are in place by 7-9y (Weisman et al., 2017a, 2017b, 2018). Here we reanalyze these datasets to explore the structural relationships among BODY, HEART, and MIND. Across six studies (N=1758), adults’ assessments of the mental lives of robots, beetles, birds, goats, and other entities revealed a clear hierarchical structure: social-emotional abilities were virtually never granted to any entity perceived to lack physiological sensations or perceptual-cognitive abilities. This is consistent with a folk theory—similar to prominent theories in affective science—in which emotions emerge from the combination of more basic capacities for sensation and cognition. Studies of US children (4-9y, N=445) suggest that it takes years for children to acquire this understanding.

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