Issue 2 – Science Feature 2

Contributed by Dr. Katie Hoemann


No fair! How children understand and react to violations of fairness norms

Science spotlight on 2022 Best Dissertation in Affective Science Award winner Dr. Meltem Yucel


In the spirit of Northern Hemisphere summer, imagine the following scenario: Two children are playing on the beach, building sandcastles. One finds an extra bucket and shovel, giving her the ability to get more sand at a time and to create a bigger and more elaborate sandcastle. The other child protests: it’s not fair that he does not have extra tools. His sandcastle will be smaller or may take more time to build. It won’t be as fun.

This scenario is innocent enough, but it illustrates children’s sensitivity to (un)fair distributions of resources. It also provides a context for probing how children understand norms about fairness. We know that children care deeply about unfairness. However, we don’t know how they compare it to other types of norm violations. Is having better beach toys a worse offense than pushing someone into the water? Than wearing a swimsuit to school? 2022 Best Dissertation in Affective Science Award winner Dr. Meltem Yucel used scenarios like these to investigate children’s perceptions of fairness norms, how these perceptions change with age, and what role affect plays in their moralization.

Dr. Yucel started from the observation that young children already have a sophisticated understanding of different types of norms. For example, they know it is immoral to hit or push other people, and that moral norm violations like physically harming someone are much more serious offenses than conventional norm violations like dressing inappropriately or playing a game wrong (Smetana et al., 2018; Yucel et al., 2020). They also enforce norm violations to ensure fair treatment of others (Yucel & Vaish, 2018). However, little work has examined the extent to which affect is involved in processing norm violations and how early this begins.

To bridge this gap, Dr. Yucel showed videos of moral and conventional norm violations to 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, and undergraduate students while measuring their physiological arousal via pupillometry. She found that even the youngest participants showed greater arousal when witnessing moral as opposed to nonmoral violations. Eye-tracking data also showed that participants of all age groups attended significantly more to the victim of the moral violation than to the person present during the nonmoral violation. This is the first evidence of affective differences that co-occur with, and may contribute to, the behavioral distinction that even young children make between moral and conventional norms (Yucel et al., 2020).

Building on these findings, Dr. Yucel next conducted a series of five studies examining how children and adults perceive fairness violations. Overall, she found a meaningful developmental shift in children’s understanding of fairness. In one study (Yucel et al., 2022), 4-, 6-, and 8-year-old children saw pictures of moral violations (e.g., pushing someone), conventional violations (e.g., wearing inappropriate clothing), fairness violations (e.g., taking more toys), and control actions (e.g., asking permission) and indicated how ‘nice’ or ‘bad’ each action was. The 4-year-olds rated fairness and conventional violations similarly, while the two older groups rated fairness violations to be more serious. Critically, no age group perceived fairness violations to be as serious as moral violations. Dr. Yucel proposes that this is because the impact of unfair distributions is indirect and less perceptible, making them appear relatively harmless to children (see also Ball et al., 2017).

Understanding the development of fairness norms is important because the way we conceptualize unfairness changes how we respond to it. If we see unfairness as a moral norm violation (e.g., physical harm), we are more likely to intervene. If we see it more like a conventional norm violation (e.g., dressing inappropriately), we may still respond negatively but be less concerned about rectifying the imbalance. Consider our two children on the beach. The impact of beach toys on sandcastle size is admittedly trivial, but it is not hard to see how the same inequities unfold on a much larger scale.

Dr. Yucel’s findings carry a powerful message: resource inequality may be widely accepted in many societies because the harm it causes is less obvious than other moral violations. Encouragingly, however, they also sketch a path forward. They suggest that making the damage caused by unfairness explicit can shape the developmental trajectory of fairness norms. This has impacts for caregivers and teachers alike. As scientists, we can help parents be more aware of how they talk about unfairness at home, and we can help teachers socialize fairness concerns through tailored school curricula – in both contexts encouraging children to spontaneously consider the consequences of unfairness and how they can be addressed. Together, we can work to create a world centered on sharing and cooperation.



Ball, C. L., Smetana, J. G., & Sturge‐Apple, M. L. (2017). Following my head and my heart: Integrating preschoolers’ empathy, theory of mind, and moral judgments. Child Development, 88(2), 597–611.

Smetana, J. G., Ball, C. L., Jambon, M., & Yoo, H. N. (2018). Are young children’s preferences and evaluations of moral and conventional transgressors associated with domain distinctions in judgments? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 173, 284–303.

Yucel, M., Drell, M. B., Jaswal, V. K., & Vaish, A. (2022). Young children do not perceive distributional fairness as a moral norm. Developmental Psychology, 58(6), 1103–1113.

Yucel, M., Hepach, R., & Vaish, A. (2020). Young children and adults show differential arousal to moral and conventional transgressions. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 548.

Yucel, M., & Vaish, A. (2018). Young children tattle to enforce moral norms. Social Development, 27(4), 924–936.

Issue 2 – Science Feature 1

Contributed by Dr. Katie Hoemann


Learning and reversing: How the brain navigates threat in an ever-changing environment

Science spotlight on 2022 Best Dissertation in Affective Science Award winner Dr. Hannah Savage


Once, I spent the better part of a year as a professional pet sitter and dog walker. It started out as the perfect job. Until one day when administering medicine to a sick cat resulted in a pretty deep scratch to the arm. I was fine but shaken. I decided to avoid cats for the next while and focus on bonding with dogs. As luck would have it, I was leaving a house one day when a dog chased after and bit me. It left a bruise through my jeans but didn’t break the skin. Still, after a lifetime of happy-go-lucky petting and nuzzling of dogs: I was nervous. I cautiously went back to spending more time with cats.

In the scientific literature, this narrative arc could be described as an episode of threat learning and threat reversal. I formed an association between one stimulus (the cat) and an aversive experience (getting scratched) — an example of threat learning — which I then had to reassess when I continued to have good experiences with cats — an example of threat reversal. This happened at the same time that my love of dogs was challenged by a frightening experience. Thankfully for me, my response suggests I have an ability to respond flexibly to changing sources of threat and safety. Being able to do this well is associated with adaptive emotional functioning and well-being; in fact, inflexibility in this process might be related to the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders. Yet scientists are still working out exactly how the brain accomplishes this feat and what role subjective and autonomic responses play.

2022 Best Dissertation in Affective Science Award winner Dr. Hannah Savage tackled these questions in a series of fMRI studies using a novel threat-safety reversal task. During an initial baseline phase, participants were presented with a blue and a yellow sphere. During the conditioning (‘learning’) phase, one of these spheres was paired with a burst of white noise. Then, during the reversal phase, the pairing of the sphere color and the white noise was switched. Ratings of valence and anxious arousal were collected at the end of each phase, and skin conductance responses were collected throughout, allowing Dr. Savage to track not only the neural, but also the subjective and autonomic components of learning.

In her first study (Savage et al., 2020a), Dr. Savage found participants’ subjective ratings indicated successful threat and safety reversal learning. In terms of neural responses, threat reversal was associated with activation in regions of the salience network (anterior insular cortex [AIC], rostral dorsal anterior cingulate cortex [dACC]) and safety reversal associated with activation in regions that overlap with the default mode network (DMN; anterior ventromedial prefrontal cortex [vmPFC], posterior midline). In her second study (Savage et al., 2020b), Dr. Savage found that, contrary to expectations, this learning process (and corresponding patterns of neural activation) was not disrupted in people with social anxiety disorder.

In her third study (Savage et al., 2021), Dr. Savage dug deeper, to unpack the brain’s involvement in the subjective and autonomic responses to threat. She found that the brain systems generally thought to represent threat learning (including AIC, dACC, and vmPFC) mostly reflected the subjective experience of being anxiously aroused during this learning process, while threat reversal relied on systems associated with valence processing. In contrast, a different subset of regions was responsible for mediating autonomic (skin conductance) responses.

In other words: how people reported feeling was more strongly and broadly predicted by the neural response to threat than their bodily response. This finding is in line with growing evidence showing that the subjective and physiological components of emotion may not correlate as strongly as has traditionally been assumed (e.g., Siegel et al., 2018). It further suggests that subjective (conscious) experiences may be a better, or more comprehensive, predictor of emotional functioning and well-being than their physiological (unconscious) counterparts – a suggestion with profound implications for understanding and treating mental health problems (Taschereau-Dumouchel et al., 2022).

Ultimately, Dr. Savage’s work shows the strides affective science can make by examining emotional phenomena through multiple lenses. There are a lot more threat- and safety-related contingencies out there than stories conveying the (stretched) truth about cats and dogs. These contingencies have consequences for navigating our everyday, ever-changing environments. But by considering the complex interrelations between brain, body, and mind, we can come to better understand human emotions and their relation to mental health.



Savage, H. S., Davey, C. G., Fullana, M. A., & Harrison, B. J. (2020a). Clarifying the neural substrates of threat and safety reversal learning in humans. NeuroImage, 207, 116427.

Savage, H. S., Davey, C. G., Fullana, M. A., & Harrison, B. J. (2020b). Threat and safety reversal learning in social anxiety disorder – an fMRI study. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 76, 102321.

Savage, H. S., Davey, C. G., Wager, T. D., Garfinkel, S. N., Moffat, B. A., Glarin, R. K., & Harrison, B. J. (2021). Neural mediators of subjective and autonomic responding during threat learning and regulation. NeuroImage, 245, 118643.

Siegel, E. H., Sands, M. K., Van den Noortgate, W., Condon, P., Chang, Y., Dy, J., Quigley, K. S., & Barrett, L. F. (2018). Emotion fingerprints or emotion populations? A meta-analytic investigation of autonomic features of emotion categories. Psychological Bulletin, 144(4), 343–393.

Taschereau-Dumouchel, V., Michel, M., Lau, H., Hofmann, S. G., & LeDoux, J. E. (2022). Putting the “mental” back in “mental disorders”: A perspective from research on fear and anxiety. Molecular Psychiatry, 27(3), 1322–1330.

Issue 1 – Science Feature

By Dr. Katie Hoemann, KU Leuven

An inside look at interoception: How does it matter for our emotions during stress?

“How do you feel right now?” Many of us might answer this question by focusing on what’s going on in our minds – our thoughts, expectations, or hopes. However, what’s going on in our bodies – including how well we attend to it and what we believe about it – has a larger effect on our current emotional experience than we might think.

Interoception – how the brain and mind perceive and interpret internal physiological changes – is a hot topic in affective science. Although it was first introduced in the early 20th Century, interest in interoception has sky-rocketed in the past couple of decades. For example, a search of Google Ngram Viewer over the past 100 years shows an almost 600% increase in the incidence of the term since 2010 alone:

Despite its popularity, interoception remains poorly understood as the field grapples with its related constructs and the best ways to measure them. Interoception is most popularly measured as objective accuracy in detecting internal physiological changes (i.e., interoceptive ability) or as self-characterized awareness of bodily sensations (i.e., interoceptive sensibility). Yet people can also hold interoceptive beliefs about bodily sensations’ value or harm, and these beliefs might help shape how interoceptive signals are attended to and used. A test of the relationships between interoceptive ability, sensibility, and beliefs, and the role they play in linking physiological changes to emotional experience, could shed new light on the connection between body and mind.

2021 Best Dissertation in Affective Science Award winner Dr. Jennifer MacCormack performed just such a test. She conducted a large, laboratory-based study of physiological reactivity, emotional experience, and these three aspects of interoception (ability, sensibility, beliefs) in the context of an acute stress induction, putting over 200 healthy young adults through the Trier Social Stress Test. Dr. MacCormack’s aim was to clarify: What matters more for predicting emotional intensity – individuals’ physiological reactivity; how accurately they can detect physiological changes; whether they think they are sensitive to their bodies; or what they believe about their bodily sensations?

In line with past work, Dr. MacCormack found that greater physiological reactivity was related to more intense negative, high arousal emotions during the stressor task. In contrast, greater interoceptive ability was related to less intense negative, high arousal emotions while interoceptive sensibility was unrelated. Perhaps counterintuitively, interoceptive beliefs were the most consistent and robust predictor of acute stress experiences. Individuals with more positive interoceptive beliefs had less intense negative, high arousal emotions and these beliefs moderated the relation between physiological reactivity and subjective stress.

Methodologically, Dr. MacCormack’s dissertation brings clarity to research on interoception. Most studies focus on only one measure of interoception at a time and do not control for potential confounds with physiological reactivity, while also relying on image or film clip emotion inductions. Simultaneously examining multiple interoceptive constructs and physiological reactivity together in the context of an acute stressor

Theoretically, Dr. MacCormack’s findings suggest that although physiological changes and the ability to detect them matter for acute stress experiences, a priori beliefs about those physiological changes may matter more. Because interoceptive beliefs are likely acquired throughout life, they can also likely be changed to promote adaptive (i.e., less stressed) experiences. Her work dovetails with other research suggesting that the beliefs we hold – be they about our emotions (Ford & Gross, 2019), stress (Crum et al., 2017), or physiological arousal (Jamieson et al., 2010) – impact our bodily and affective states, for good and ill. On the whole, this work opens new research questions about intersections between psychopathology, development, and health, and the role our bodies play in these psychological processes.


Crum, A. J., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 30, 379–395.

Ford, B. Q., & Gross, J. J. (2019). Why beliefs about emotion matter: An emotion-regulation perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science28(1), 74-81.

Jamieson, J. P., Mendes, W. B., Blackstock, E., & Schmader, T. (2010). Turning the knots in your stomach into bows: Reappraising arousal improves performance on the GRE. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 208–212.

MacCormack, J. K. (2020). Minding the body: The role of interoception in linking physiology and emotion during acute stress. Dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

MacCormack, J. K., Bonar, A. S., & Lindquist, K. A. (under review). Interoceptive beliefs moderate the link between physiological reactivity and emotion during an acute stressor.