A preliminary investigation of the effects of emotional stimuli on 4-year-old children?s abstraction and cognitive flexibility on the flexible item selection task (FIST)

Shane Shucheng Wong, Sophie Jacques, Philip David Zelazo


Affective decision-making increases dramatically in preschool years, but relatively little is known about the influence of emotion on young children’s executive function. This study examined the effects of emotion on four-year-olds’ rule abstraction and cognitive flexibility using the Flexible Item Selection Task (FIST). The FIST is a preschooler age-appropriate test of executive function requiring cards to be matched on certain dimensions: selection one performance is conceptualized as abstraction, while selection two reflects cognitive flexibility. In this study, four-year-olds were given a standard version of the FIST, and a modified version with happy, sad, angry or neutral faces in the background. Results showed that abstraction and cognitive flexibility performance was significantly better on the happy face version compared to the neutral face version. Furthermore, facilitative effects of positive faces on abstraction carried over to the standard version of the FIST, which was presented later. This suggests an affective learning effect that lasts beyond the original task. Results also showed that cognitive flexibility performance on the standard version was significantly better than in the neutral and angry versions. However, the relative improvement of cognitive flexibility in the standard version was not seen in comparison to the happy face version. This suggests that positive emotions mitigated the relative difficulties inherent to switching between rules in the face version. Results are consistent with the suggestion that positive stimuli promote attention and cognitive flexibility, possibly by increasing dopamine levels in the anterior cingulate cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex.


abstraction; cognitive flexibility; emotion; flexible item selection task; “hot” executive function

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© University of Toronto Journal of Undergraduate Life Sciences.