The physiological correlates of children's emotions in contexts of moral transgression

Tina Malti, Tyler Colasante, Antonio Zuffiano, M. de Bruine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Heightened attention to sociomoral conflicts and arousal at the prospect of committing moral transgressions are thought to increase the likelihood of negatively valenced moral emotions (NVMEs; e.g., guilt) in children. Here, we tested this biphasic model of moral emotions with a psychophysiological framework. For a series of vignettes depicting moral transgressions, 5- and 8-year-olds (N = 138) were asked to anticipate their emotions as hypothetical victimizers. Their responses were coded for the presence and intensity of NVMEs. In addition, their heart rate (HR) was calculated for three intervals of interest: a baseline period, the presentation of vignettes, and the anticipation of emotions following vignettes. We used multilevel modeling to examine how change in children’s HR across these intervals related to the intensity of their NVMEs. Those who experienced greater HR deceleration from baseline to vignettes and greater acceleration from vignettes to anticipated emotions reported more intense NVMEs. We discuss the potential attention- and arousal-related processes behind children’s physiological reactivity and anticipated emotions in contexts of moral transgression.
Keywords: Moral emotions, Heart rate, Psychophysiology, Childhood, Guilt, Heart rate reactivity
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)372-381
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Moral emotions
  • Heart rate
  • Psychophysiology
  • Childhood
  • Guilt
  • Heart rate reactivity


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