Early experiences and a child’s temperament can influence later problem-solving abilities

This study should come with a warning ‘don’t try this at home’, and no, tiger moms, do sit down. This new study indicates that early experiences of environmental harshness, in combination with a child’s temperament, can influence later problem-solving abilities. But do know that other studies also show negative effects, no really.

From the press release:

Following early exposure to harsh environments, children with higher levels of hawk traits at age 2 — meaning that they exhibited heightened levels of aggressiveness, boldness, activity, and approach — developed enhanced problem-solving for rewards by age 4. Furthermore, these children displayed worse performance on a standardized visual problem-solving task with low motivational significance, regardless of environmental harshness.

“Our study’s findings provide support for emerging views that early environmental experiences in combination with temperament characteristics shape children’s cognitive functioning towards what is most salient in their environments,” said Jennifer Suor, lead author of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry study. “Moreover, our findings illustrate how evolutionary approaches to child development might offer important insights into the functional significance behind developmental adaptations in cognition, and furthermore, emphasize how standardized cognitive assessments, which often lack direct ecological and motivational significance, may not be able to fully capture the specialized repertoire of cognitive skills children develop in stressful environments.”

Abstract of the study:


Harsh environments are known to predict deficits in children’s cognitive abilities. Life history theory approaches challenge this interpretation, proposing stressed children’s cognition becomes specialized to solve problems in fitness-enhancing ways. The goal of this study was to examine associations between early environmental harshness and children’s problem-solving outcomes across tasks varying in ecological relevance. In addition, we utilize an evolutionary model of temperament toward further specifying whether hawk temperament traits moderate these associations.


Two hundred and one mother–child dyads participated in a prospective multimethod study when children were 2 and 4 years old. At age 2, environmental harshness was assessed via maternal report of earned income and observations of maternal disengagement during a parent–child interaction task. Children’s hawk temperament traits were assessed from a series of unfamiliar episodes. At age 4, children’s reward-oriented and visual problem-solving were measured.

ResultsPath analyses revealed early environmental harshness and children’s hawk temperament traits predicted worse visual problem-solving. Results showed a significant two-way interaction between children’s hawk temperament traits and environmental harshness on reward-oriented problem-solving. Simple slope analyses revealed the effect of environmental harshness on reward-oriented problem-solving was specific to children with higher levels of hawk traits.


Results suggest early experiences of environmental harshness and child hawk temperament traits shape children’s trajectories of problem-solving in an environment-fitting manner.

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