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The Genetics of Emotional Ontogeny (GEO)

The Genetics of Emotional Ontogeny (GEO) project includes multi-method, comprehensive assessment of emotion and temperament as well as selective assessment of cognition, motor development, physiology, social interaction, and the home environment from birth to age 3 years. The methods include lab-based elicitation of behavior, home observation, testing by examiner, telephone interviews, diaries, narrative constructions, questionnaires, hospital records, biochemical assays (cortisol), and central (EEG) and peripheral (cardiac) psychophysiology. The goals of GEO project fall into two categories: (1) developing emotional individuality and its correlates, and (2) genetic and environmental underpinnings of emotional individuality and other domains of development. A follow-up study combines emotional and physiological aspects of development with twins ages 6-9 years.

The Importance of Emotional Individuality

There are four broad aims of the research on emotions and temperament. Concerning elucidating emotional individuality, an initial aim is to map the onset and early developmental course of affective responses such as the social smile, wary reactions to strangers, initial empathetic responses, inhibition, embarrassment, guilt, and pride. A second aim is to investigate individual differences in the timing of emotional development. Potential correlates include physical, motoric, physiological, cognitive, and social factors. For example, GEO will provide new evidence crucial to one long standing question in infancy research: Does emotional development depend upon cognitive transitions (Biringen, Emde, Campos, & Appelbaum, 1995; Decarie, 1965; Haith & Campos, 1977; Harris, 1989; Kagan, 1981)? It will also provide evidence crucial to a more contemporary question: Does emotional development depend on motoric transitions (Bertenthal & Campos, 1990; Fogel & Thelen, 1987)? A third aim is to verify other researchers’ discoveries of periods of rapid, cross-domain, developmental change, interspersed with slower growth. A fourth, major aim is to investigate the functional significance of temperament. We equate temperament operationally with individual differences in emotional expression (Goldsmith, 1993) or emotional biases (Malatesta, 1990). This addresses the functional significance of the timing of emotional development. Temperament will also be related to the array of physical, motoric, physiological, cognitive, and social factors assessed in the project.

Behavioral-Genetic Goals

The second category of goals includes at least seven behavior-genetic issues. In essence, each of the aims mentioned in the previous paragraph can be investigated in a genetically informative way. (1) Several constructs in the project have not been subjected to simple univariate biometric analysis (e.g., frontal EEG asymmetry; infant cortisol levels; MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory). (2) If the timing parameters of emotional development (ages of onset, times of transition) are more similar in identical cotwins than in fraternal cotwins, genetic variance is implicated. (3) Documentation of common genetic bases of physiology and behavior would be an important step toward a process-oriented understanding of the genetic basis of the emotional differences that underlie much variation in normal range behavior and susceptibility to behavioral problems. The analysis of genetic and environmental covariance between temperamental inhibition and frontal EEG asymmetry is only one example of the many multivariate quantitative genetic analyses that will be pursued. Another would involve self development and self-conscious emotions. Combining (2) and (3), we can also (4) use the twin design to discover if a common genetic basis for the covariance in timing of cognitive and emotional transitions exists. (5) Besides the ordinary questions of phenotypic convergence among the many measures of constructs, multitrait, multimethod genetic covariance analyses can be done. (6) The longitudinal design allows us to study genetic bases of stability and change. (7) Finally, the study incorporates several specific measures of the environment (e.g., emotional atmosphere of the home, parental personality, marital quality, home characteristics, sibling conflict, stressful life events, child-rearing beliefs and practices), and these can be used to elucidate the abstract shared and nonshared environmental variance components.

Additionally, and importantly, from our twin families’ viewpoints, we investigate the ecology of twinship and provide useful information to the participating families. The foundation will be laid for future extensions toward genetic linkage and association studies of early temperament (using fraternal twins) and toward following the twins through the transition to school.

List of Assessments at each Major Phase of GEO


University of Wisconsin-Madison :: Department of Psychology :: Waisman Center
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Psychology Department, University of WI, Madison
Waisman Center, UW Madison