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Fear and Disgust in Childhood: Emotion Understanding, Attentional Processes, and Children’s Responses to Potential Threat


Fear and disgust are both evoked in response to a potential threat and motivate a broad range of behaviors and beliefs but knowledge of children’s experiences and understanding of these two emotions as different is limited. The purpose of this dissertation was to a) examine age-related differences in children’s differentiation of fear and disgust, b) investigate whether children’s attention differs across a disgust or fear context and relates to individual differences in how children understand and experience these emotions, and c) examine whether individual differences in important aspects of emotion development relate to children’s emotions and beliefs about a potential threat with real-world implications – tap water.

To capture fear and disgust intensity, 69 four- to seven-year-old children were interviewed about how scared and disgusted typical fear and disgust elicitors made them feel. Children were interviewed about their water-related preferences, emotions, and beliefs. To capture orienting, total looking duration, and disengagement attention processes, children’s visual attention towards and away from a disgust OR fear-relevant stimulus during a free-play episode was recorded. Children were invited to approach/engage with evocative items and rated the intensity of their fear and disgust towards each. Children’s differentiation of fear and disgust was captured by correlating fear and disgust intensity ratings for the items presented hypothetically (interviews) and in person.

Findings revealed that age did not relate to differentiation of fear and disgust. Children differentiated between fear and disgust more strongly when responding to disgust than fear elicitors and when asked about them hypothetically (interview) than in person. Attention patterns across the fear and disgust contexts were similar and did not relate to reported experiences of fear or disgust, or children’s preferences, negative emotions, and beliefs about tap water. Children who reported more intense fear and disgust and those who demonstrated less awareness of the distinctions between fear and disgust reported more negative emotions towards tap water. Understanding of fear and disgust and their appraisals of tap water as potentially threatening should be addressed early in development to promote more sustainable water solutions and greater acceptance of tap water.

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