The facilitative effect of positive stimuli on 3-year-olds' flexible rule use

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This study examined the effect of emotional stimuli on 3- to 4-year old children's flexible rule use, as measured by the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS). In Experiment 1, children in two countries (Canada and China) were given 2 versions of the DCCS. The Standard version required children to sort red and blue boats and rabbits first by shape and then by color (or vice versa); the Emotional Faces version required children to sort happy and sad male and female faces first by emotion and then by gender (or vice versa). Children performed significantly better on the Emotional Faces version, and performance on the 2 versions was related. Order in which dimensions were presented had no effect. Experiment 2 examined which aspects of the emotional faces were responsible for the facilitation of children's performance. Performance on the Standard version was compared to performance on three contextual faces versions, in which children were shown happy, sad, or neutral faces and required to sort them by age (child versus adult) and then by gender (or vice versa). Facilitation was only seen in the context of happy faces. Results are consistent with the suggestion that positive stimuli promote cognitive flexibility, perhaps by increasing dopamine levels in prefrontal cortex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)456-473
Number of pages18
JournalCognitive Development
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2007
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research reported in this article was supported in part by grants from NSERC of Canada and the Canada Research Chairs Program to PDZ. We thank all the children, parents, and day care centers who participated in this study. We also thank Andreea Bostan, Lesley Cresswell, Sophia Ho, and Shintula Wijeya for their assistance in data collection. Development of the MacBrain Face Stimulus Set was overseen by Nim Tottenham and supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Early Experience and Brain Development. Please contact Nim Tottenham at for more information concerning these stimuli. We also thank Dr. Li Hong and two reviewers for their insightful comments. Dr. Li Qu is now in the Division of Psychology, School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore 639798 (Email: ).

Copyright 2007 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS)
  • Emotion
  • Executive function
  • Rule use
  • facilitation


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