Category Archives: Psychology

Something children are better at than adults (and no, it isn’t creativity)

Often adults can do thing better than children. I know some – Romantic – people think children are genius and education kills creativity, but that has been debunked already. Still, I know a lot of stuff that children can do, which are now almost impossible to me. And a new study adds something to this list: noticing stuff that adults didn’t see. And it’s because of one of the limitations of children: it’s harder for them to focus. (btw, this recent post by Dan Willingham is also about the benefits and downsides of focus)

From the press release:

In two studies, researchers found that adults were very good at remembering information they were told to focus on, and ignoring the rest. In contrast, 4- to 5-year-olds tended to pay attention to all the information that was presented to them – even when they were told to focus on one particular item. That helped children to notice things that adults didn’t catch because of the grownups’ selective attention.

“We often think of children as deficient in many skills when compared to adults. But sometimes what seems like a deficiency can actually be an advantage,” said Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

“That’s what we found in our study. Children are extremely curious and they tend to explore everything, which means their attention is spread out, even when they’re asked to focus. That can sometimes be helpful.”

The results have important implications for understanding how education environments affect children’s learning, he said.

Sloutsky conducted the study with Daniel Plebanek, a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State. Their results were just published in the journal Psychological Science.

The first study involved 35 adults and 34 children who were 4 to 5 years old.

The participants were shown a computer screen with two shapes, with one shape overlaying the other. One of the shapes was red, the other green. The participants were told to pay attention to a shape of a particular color (say, the red shape).

The shapes then disappeared briefly, and another screen with shapes appeared. The participants had to report whether the shapes in the new screen were the same as in the previous screen.

In some cases, the shapes were exactly the same. In other cases, the target shape (the one participants were told to pay attention to) was different. But there were also instances where the non-target shape changed, even though it was not the one participants were told to notice.

Adults performed slightly better than children at noticing when the target shape changed, noticing it 94 percent of the time compared to 86 percent of the time for children.

“But the children were much better than adults at noticing when the non-target shape changed,” Sloutsky said. Children noticed that change 77 percent of the time, compared to 63 percent of the time for adults.

“What we found is that children were paying attention to the shapes that they weren’t required to,” he said. “Adults, on the other hand, tended to focus only on what they were told was needed.”

A second experiment involved the same participants. In this case, participants were shown drawings of artificial creatures with several different features. They might have an “X” on their body, or an “O”; they might have a lightning bolt on the end of their tail or a fluffy ball.

Participants were asked to find one feature, such as the “X” on the body among the “Os.” They weren’t told anything about the other features. Thus, their attention was attracted to “X” and “O”, but not to the other features. Both children and adults found the “X” well, with adults being somewhat more accurate than children.

But when those features appeared on creatures in later screens, there was a big difference in what participants remembered. For features they were asked to attend to (i.e., “X” and “O”), adults and children were identical in remembering these features. But children were substantially more accurate than adults (72 percent versus 59 percent) at remembering features that they were not asked to attend to, such as the creatures’ tails.

“The point is that children don’t focus their attention as well as adults, even if you ask them to,” Sloutsky said. “They end up noticing and remembering more.”

Sloutsky said that adults would do well at noticing and remembering the ignored information in the studies, if they were told to pay attention to everything. But their ability to focus attention has a cost – they miss what they are not focused on.

The ability of adults to focus their attention – and children’s tendency to distribute their attention more widely – both have positives and negatives.

“The ability to focus attention is what allows adults to sit in two-hour meetings and maintain long conversations, while ignoring distractions,” Sloutsky said.

“But young children’s use of distributed attention allows them to learn more in new and unfamiliar settings by taking in a lot of information.”

The fact that children don’t always do as well at focusing attention also shows the importance of designing the right learning environment in classrooms, Sloutsky said.

“Children can’t handle a lot of distractions. They are always taking in information, even if it is not what you’re trying to teach them. We need to make sure that we are aware of that and design our classrooms, textbooks and educational materials to help students succeed.

“Perhaps a boring classroom or a simple black and white worksheet means less distraction and more successful learning,” Sloutsky added.

Abstract of the study:

One of the lawlike regularities of psychological science is that of developmental progression—an increase in sensorimotor, cognitive, and social functioning from childhood to adulthood. Here, we report a rare violation of this law, a developmental reversal in attention. In Experiment 1, 4- to 5-year-olds (n = 34) and adults (n = 35) performed a change-detection task that included externally cued and uncued shapes. Whereas the adults outperformed the children on the cued shapes, the children outperformed the adults on the uncued shapes. In Experiment 2, the same participants completed a visual search task, and their memory for search-relevant and search-irrelevant information was tested. The young children outperformed the adults with respect to search-irrelevant features. This demonstration of a paradoxical property of early attention deepens current understanding of the development of attention. It also has implications for understanding early learning and cognitive development more broadly.

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Interesting: famous Milgram-experiment has been successfully replicated

It has been a topic that has been fascinating me for quite a while now: are the insights from the famous Milgram-experiment valid or not. Why I have been questioning this, is because there has been criticism lately:

…several scholars raised new criticisms of the research based on their analysis of the transcripts and audio from the original experiments, or on new simulations or partial replications of the experiments. These contemporary criticisms add to past critiques, profoundly undermining the credibility of the original research and the way it is usually interpreted. That Milgram’s studies had a mighty cultural and scholarly impact is not in dispute; the meaning of what he found most certainly is.

BPS Digest sums up the most important modern criticisms:

  • When a participant hesitated in applying electric shocks, the actor playing the role of experimenter was meant to stick to a script of four escalating verbal “prods”. In fact, he frequently improvised, inventing his own terms and means of persuasion. Gina Perry (author of Behind The Shock Machine) has said the experiment was more akin to an investigation of “bullying and coercion” than obedience.
  • A partial replication of the studies found that no participants actually gave in to the fourth and final prod, the only one that actually constituted a command. Analysis of Milgram’s transcripts similarly suggested that the experimenter prompts that were most like a command were rarely obeyed. A modern analogue of Milgram’s paradigm found that order-like prompts were ineffective compared with appeals to science, supporting the idea that people are not blindly obedient to authority but believe they are contributing to a worthy cause.
  • Milgram failed to fully debrief his participants immediately after they’d participated.
  • In an unpublished version of his paradigm, Milgram recruited pairs of people who knew each other to play the role of teacher and learner. In this case, disobedience rose to 85 per cent.
  • Many participants were sceptical about the reality of the supposed set-up. Restricting analysis to only those who truly believed the situation was real, disobedience rose to around 66 per cent.

But now there is a new – successful but again partial- replication of the famous experiment, the research appears in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Still, one could ask again if some of the criticisms aren’t still valid also for the new replication – they do imho.

From the press release:

“Our objective was to examine how high a level of obedience we would encounter among residents of Poland,” write the authors. “It should be emphasized that tests in the Milgram paradigm have never been conducted in Central Europe. The unique history of the countries in the region made the issue of obedience towards authority seem exceptionally interesting to us.”

For those unfamiliar with the Milgram experiment, it tested people’s willingness to deliverer electric shocks to another person when encouraged by an experimenter. While no shocks were actually delivered in any of the experiments, the participants believed them to be real. The Milgram experiments demonstrated that under certain conditions of pressure from authority, people are willing to carry out commands even when it may harm someone else.

“Upon learning about Milgram’s experiments, a vast majority of people claim that ‘I would never behave in such a manner,’ says Tomasz Grzyb, a social psychologist involved in the research. “Our study has, yet again, illustrated the tremendous power of the situation the subjects are confronted with and how easily they can agree to things which they find unpleasant.”

While ethical considerations prevented a full replication of the experiments, researchers created a similar set-up with lower “shock” levels to test the level of obedience of participants.

The researchers recruited 80 participants (40 men and 40 women), with an age range from 18 to 69, for the study. Participants had up to 10 buttons to press, each a higher “shock” level. The results show that the level of participants’ obedience towards instructions is similarly high to that of the original Milgram studies.

They found that 90% of the people were willing to go to the highest level in the experiment. In terms of differences between peoples willingness to deliver shock to a man versus a woman, “It is worth remarking,” write the authors, “that although the number of people refusing to carry out the commands of the experimenter was three times greater when the student [the person receiving the “shock”] was a woman, the small sample size does not allow us to draw strong conclusions.”

In terms of how society has changed, Grzyb notes, “half a century after Milgram’s original research into obedience to authority, a striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual.”

Abstract of the study:

In spite of the over 50 years which have passed since the original experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram on obedience, these experiments are still considered a turning point in our thinking about the role of the situation in human behavior. While ethical considerations prevent a full replication of the experiments from being prepared, a certain picture of the level of obedience of participants can be drawn using the procedure proposed by Burger. In our experiment, we have expanded it by controlling for the sex of participants and of the learner. The results achieved show a level of participants’ obedience toward instructions similarly high to that of the original Milgram studies. Results regarding the influence of the sex of participants and of the “learner,” as well as of personality characteristics, do not allow us to unequivocally accept or reject the hypotheses offered.

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New study confirms: cyberbullying rarely occurs in isolation

It’s something I’ve known from other studies, but this new research from the University of Warwick, published in European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, confirms it: cyberbullying is mostly an extension of playground bullying — and doesn’t create large numbers of new victims.

In short:

  • Cyberbullying doesn’t create large numbers of new victims
  • Most bullying is face-to-face – with cyberbullying used as a modern tool to supplement traditional forms
  • 29% of UK teenagers reported being bullied – only 1% were victims of cyberbullying alone
  • Bullying intervention strategies should focus on traditional bullying as well as cyberbullying

From the press release:

Professor Dieter Wolke in the Department of Psychology finds that although cyberbullying is prevalent and harmful, it is a modern tool used to harm victims already bullied by traditional, face-to-face means.

In a study of almost 3000 pupils aged 11-16 from UK secondary schools, twenty-nine percent reported being bullied, but one percent of adolescents were victims of cyberbullying alone.

During the survey, pupils completed the Bullying and Friendship Interview, which has been used in numerous studies to assess bullying and victimization.

They were asked about direct victimisation (e.g., “been hit/beaten up” or “called bad/nasty names”); relational victimization (e.g., “had nasty lies/rumours spread about you”); and cyber-victimization (e.g., “had rumours spread about you online”, “had embarrassing pictures posted online without permission”, or “got threatening or aggressive emails, instant messages, text messages or tweets”).

All the teenagers who reported being bullied in any form had lower self-esteem, and more behavioural difficulties than non-victims.

However, those who were bullied by multiple means – direct victimisation, relational victimisation and cyber-victimisation combined – demonstrated the lowest self-esteem and the most emotional and behavioural problems.

The study finds that cyberbullying is “another tool in the toolbox” for traditional bullying, but doesn’t create many unique online victims.

As a result, Professor Wolke argues that public health strategies to prevent bullying overall should still mainly focus on combatting traditional, face-to-face bullying – as that is the root cause of the vast majority of cyberbullying.

Professor Wolke comments:

“Bullying is a way to gain power and peer acceptance, being the ‘cool’ kid in class. Thus, cyber bullying is another tool that is directed towards peers that the bully knows, and bullies, at school.

“Any bullying prevention and intervention still needs to be primarily directed at combatting traditional bullying while considering cyberbullying as an extension that reaches victims outside the school gate and 24/7.”

Abstract of the study:

Cyberbullying has been portrayed as a rising ‘epidemic’ amongst children and adolescents. But does it create many new victims beyond those already bullied with traditional means (physical, relational)? Our aim was to determine whether cyberbullying creates uniquely new victims, and whether it has similar impact upon psychological and behavioral outcomes for adolescents, beyond those experienced by traditional victims. This study assessed 2745 pupils, aged 11–16, from UK secondary schools. Pupils completed an electronic survey that measured bullying involvement, self-esteem and behavioral problems. Twenty-nine percent reported being bullied but only 1% of adolescents were pure cyber-victims (i.e., not also bullied traditionally). Compared to direct or relational victims, cyber-victimization had similar negative effects on behavior (z = −0.41) and self-esteem (z = −0.22) compared to those not involved in bullying. However, those bullied by multiple means (poly-victims) had the most difficulties with behavior (z = −0.94) and lowest self-esteem (z = −0.78). Cyberbullying creates few new victims, but is mainly a new tool to harm victims already bullied by traditional means. Cyberbullying extends the reach of bullying beyond the school gate. Intervention strategies against cyberbullying may need to include approaches against traditional bullying and its root causes to be successful.

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You’re not like your brother: disruptive children do not inspire similar behavior in their siblings

I’m coming from a big family with a lot of brothers and sisters. Luckily they are all great, but what does it mean to have a rather disruptive brother or sister? A new longitudinal study on +900 children tries to answer this question.

From the press release:

A new Tel Aviv University study published in Child Development finds that the disruptive behavior of an individual child does not encourage similar behavior in their brothers and sisters.

On the contrary, Dr. Ella Daniel of TAU’s Jaime and Joan Constantiner School of Education finds that siblings, predominantly older siblings, of disruptive children tend to exhibit less disorderly behavior over time. The research, conducted in collaboration with Dr. Jennifer Jenkins and colleagues at the University of Toronto and funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research, examines the role of sibling training on disruptive behavior during early childhood and concludes that disruptive behavior produces greater disparity — rather than resemblance — among siblings.

“The development of disruptive behavior in early childhood is extremely important, as disruptive behavior starts early in life and behavioral patterns may become stable and resistant to influence later on,” Dr. Daniel says. “We found that in early childhood, children do not learn from each other how to be disruptive, violent or disobedient.

“In fact, they are more likely to learn what not to do, or how not to behave. The older siblings of young children who are disruptive tend to become less disruptive themselves over time, creating a polarizing effect on their behaviors.”

Focusing on younger children

Existing research on disruptive behavior is largely focused on adolescents. The new study harnessed data assessing the rate of disruptions as witnessed by both parents to track 916 toddlers and their preschool- and school-aged siblings in some 400 families in and around Toronto.

The families examined had given birth to an infant between 2006 and 2008, and had at least one other child (younger than four years of age) at home. The researchers conducted observations and interviews with the family, including all the siblings in the family, every 18 months.

The scientists collected information when the youngest child in the family was 18, 36 and 54 months old. On these three occasions, both parents reported the disruptive behaviors of each of their children. Using advanced statistical models, the researchers were able to identify the role of siblings in the development of each child’s disruptive behavior over time, taking into account heredity, parenting, social environment and shared history.

“The study teaches us that we have little to worry about one sibling being ‘a bad influence’ on their brothers or sisters,” says Dr. Daniel. “Instead, we should be more worried of pigeon holing: that one child will be labeled as a ‘black sheep,’ and that all children in the family will develop based on pre-assigned roles. We should let each child develop his or her individuality, which naturally changes over time.”

The researchers are currently examining the role of siblings in the development of childhood depression and anxiety.

Abstract of the study:

ibling training for disruptive behavior (one sibling teaching another disruptive behavior) is examined during early childhood. We used a conservative, recently developed, statistical model to identify sibling training. Sibling training was operationalized as the cross-lagged association between earlier child behavior and later sibling behavior, and differentiated from other reasons that contribute to sibling similarity. A three-wave longitudinal study tracked 916 children (Mage = 3.46, SD = 2.23) in 397 families using multi-informant data. Evidence for sibling training was found. Earlier younger siblings’ disruptive behavior predicted later lower levels of older siblings’ disruptive behavior. Thus, the sibling training found in early childhood was producing greater dissimilarity, rather than similarity, on disruptive behavior.

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Another reason why we have music? Parenting?

I love music. Actually, I couldn’t imagine living without it. But where does music comes from? Why does music exist? I’ve heard several explanations in the past, and this new study adds a new theory, and it has all to do with parenting.

From the press release:

A new theory paper, co-authored by Graduate School of Education doctoral student Samuel Mehr and Assistant Professor of Psychology Max Krasnow, proposes that infant-directed song evolved as a way for parents to signal to children that their needs are being met, while still freeing up parents to perform other tasks, like foraging for food, or caring for other offspring. Infant-directed song might later have evolved into the more complex forms of music we hear in our modern world. The theory is described in an open-access paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

Music is a tricky topic for evolutionary science: it turns up in many cultures around the world in many different contexts, but no one knows why humans are the only musical species. Noting that it has no known connection to reproductive success, Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker, described it as “auditory cheesecake” in his book How the Mind Works.

“There has been a lot of attention paid to the question of where music came from, but none of the theories have been very successful in predicting the features of music or musical behavior,” Krasnow said. “What we are trying to do with this paper is develop a theory of music that is grounded in evolutionary biology, human life history and the basic features of mammalian ecology.”

At the core of their theory, Krasnow said, is the notion that parents and infants are engaged in an “arms race” over an invaluable resource — attention.

“Particularly in an ancestral world, where there are predators and other people that pose a risk, and infants don’t know which foods are poisonous and what activities are hazardous, an infant can be kept safe by an attentive parent,” he said. “But attention is a limited resource.”

While there is some cooperation in the battle for that resource — parents want to satisfy infants appetite for attention because their cries might attract predators, while children need to ensure parents have time for other activities like foraging for food — that mutual interest only goes so far.

Attention, however, isn’t the only resource to cause such disagreements.

The theory of parent-offspring conflict was first put forth over forty years ago by the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, then an Assistant Professor at Harvard. Trivers predicted that infants and parents aren’t on the same page when it comes to the distribution of resources.

“His theory covers everything that can be classified as parental investment,” Krasnow said. “It’s anything that a parent could give to an offspring to help them, or that they may want to hold back for themselves and other offspring.”

Sexual reproduction means that every person gets half of their genes from each parent, but which genes in particular can differ even across full siblings.

Krasnow explains, “A gene in baby has only a fifty percent chance of being found in siblings by virtue of sharing two parents. That means that from the baby’s genetic perspective, she’ll want a more self-favoring division of resources, for example, than her mom or her sister wants, from their genetic perspectives.”

Mehr and Krasnow took the idea of parent-offspring conflict and applied it attention. They predict that children should ‘want’ a greater share of their parents’ attention than their parents ‘want’ to give them. But how does the child know it is has her parent’s attention? The solution, Krasnow said, is that parents were forced to develop some method of signaling to their offspring that their desire for attention was being met.

“I could simply look at my children, and they might have some assurance that I’m attending to them,” Krasnow said. “But I could be looking at them and thinking of something else, or looking at them and focusing on my cell phone, and not really attending to them at all. They should want a better signal than that.”

Why should that signal take the form of a song?

What makes such signals more honest, Mehr and Krasnow think, is the cost associated with them — meaning that by sending a signal to an infant, a parent cannot be sending it to someone else, sending it but lying about it, etc. “Infant directed song has a lot of these costs built in. I can’t be singing to you and be talking to someone else,” Krasnow said. “It’s unlikely I’m running away, because I need to control my voice to sing. You can tell the orientation of my head, even without looking at me, you can tell how far away I am, even without looking.”

Mehr notes that infant-directed song provides lots of opportunities for parents to signal their attention to infants: “Parents adjust their singing in real time, by altering the melody, rhythm, tempo, timbre, of their singing, adding hand motions, bouncing, touching, and facial expressions, and so on. All of these features can be finely tuned to the baby’s affective state — or not. The match or mismatch between baby behavior and parent singing could be informative for whether or not the parent is paying attention to the infant.”

Indeed, it would be pretty odd to sing a happy, bubbly song to a wailing, sleep-deprived infant.

Krasnow agrees. “All these things make something like an infant directed vocalization a good cue of attention,” he continued. “And when you put that into this co-evolutionary arms race, you might end up getting something like infant-directed song. It could begin with something like primitive vocalizations, which gradually become more infant directed, and are elaborated into melodies.”

“If a mutation develops in parents that allows them to do that quicker and better, then they have more residual budget to spend on something else, and that would spread,” he said. “Infants would then be able to get even choosier, forcing parents to get better, and so on. This is the same kind of process that starts with drab birds and results in extravagant peacocks and choosy peahens.” And as signals go, Krasnow said, those melodies can prove to be enormously powerful.

“The idea we lay out with this paper is that infant-directed song and things that share its characteristics should be very good at calming a fussy infant — and there is some evidence of that,” he said. “We’re not talking about going from this type of selection to Rock-a-Bye Baby; this theory says nothing about the words to songs or the specific melodies, it’s saying that the acoustic properties of infant directed song should make it better at calming an infant than other music.”

But, could music really be in our genes?

“A good comparison to make is to language,” Krasnow said. “We would say there’s a strong genetic component to language — we have a capability for language built into our genes — and we think the same thing is going to be true for music.”

What about other kinds of music? Mehr is optimistic that this work could be informative for this question down the road.

“Let’s assume for a moment that the theory is right. How, then, did we get from lullabies to Duke Ellington?” he asked. “The evolution of music must be a complex, multi-step process, with different features developing for different reasons. Our theory raises the possibility that infant-directed song is the starting point for all that, with other musical behaviors either developing directly via natural selection, as byproducts of infant-directed song, or as byproducts of other adaptations.”

For Pinker, the paper differs in one important way from other theories of how music evolves in that it makes evolutionary sense.

“In the past, people have been so eager to come up with an adaptive explanation for music that they have advanced glib and circular theories, such as that music evolved to bond the group,” he said. “This is the first explanation that at least makes evolutionary sense — it shows how the features of music could cause an advantage in fitness. That by itself doesn’t prove that it’s true, but at least it makes sense!”

Abstract of the paper:

We present a theory of the origin and evolution of infant-directed song, a form of music found in many cultures. After examining the ancestral ecology of parent-infant relations, we propose that infant-directed song arose in an evolutionary arms race between parents and infants, stemming from the dynamics of parent-offspring conflict. We describe testable predictions that follow from this theory, consider some existing evidence for them, and entertain the possibility that infant-directed song could form the basis for the development of other, more complex forms of music.

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Great on Sunday: the best letter to the NY Times in decades

Although my most read Funny on Sunday is about the current president of the US, it was my plan not to post jokes about Donald Trump anymore. But this letter by Demurs isn’t so much funny but just great.

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What I learned about autonomy from Richard Ryan (cfr Deci & Ryan) yesterday

Yesterday I had the pleasure to attend a public lecture by Richard Ryan at Ghent University. Ryan is famous for his work with Deci on the Self Determination Theory (SDT).

For the people who don’t know this theory, a short reminder:

Yesterday Ryan gave an overview, but when he discussed Autonomy he suddenly said something that I thought was really important for education:

So: SDT is no excuse for e.g. letting children learn without guidance or structure. Ryan made it very clear later on in his talk that autonomy within structured classes was the most effective – he also mentioned scaffolding in this case.

I did notice that most of the time Ryan mentioned links between this motivation-theory and wellbeing. He did mention a link between performance for bankers and the theory (but on the slide you could see this correlation was much smaller than on feelings of wellbeing) and the only time the effect on learning was mentioned, was in what I discussed above.

He did also say this, which is a very nice quote:

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A different tune on personality: personality traits ‘contagious’ among children

Last semester I explained to my students that there are different views on personality: dynamic versus static theories which could be summed up by the simple question “can you ever change your partner?”. This new study by Michigan State University psychology researchers is rather in the dynamic area as it shows that when preschoolers spend time around one another, they tend to take on each others’ personalities. Guess you are already looking at your kids in a whole different way…

From the press release:

The study, published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests personality is shaped by environment and not just genes.

“Our finding, that personality traits are ‘contagious’ among children, flies in the face of common assumptions that personality is ingrained and can’t be changed,” said Jennifer Watling Neal, associate professor of psychology and co-investigator on the study. “This is important because some personality traits can help children succeed in life, while others can hold them back.”

The researchers studied two preschool classes for an entire school year, analyzing personality traits and social networks for one class of 3-year-olds and one class of 4-year-olds.

Children whose play partners were extroverted or hard-working became similar to these peers over time. Children whose play partners were overanxious and easily frustrated, however, did not take on these particular traits. The study is the first to examine these personality traits in young children over time.

Emily Durbin, study co-investigator and associate professor of psychology, said kids are having a bigger effect on each other than people may realize.

“Parents spend a lot of their time trying to teach their child to be patient, to be a good listener, not to be impulsive,” Durbin said. “But this wasn’t their parents or their teachers affecting them – it was their friends. It turns out that 3- and 4-year-olds are being change agents.”

Abstract of the study:

Children enter preschool with temperament traits that may shape or be shaped by their social interactions in the peer setting. We collected classroom observational measures of positive emotionality (PE), negative emotionality (NE), effortful control (EC), and peer social play relationships from 2 complete preschool classrooms (N = 53 children) over the course of an entire school year. Using longitudinal social network analysis, we found evidence that children’s traits shaped the formation of play relationships, and that the traits of children’s playmates shaped the subsequent development of children’s own traits. Children who exhibited high levels of NE were less likely to form social play relationships over time. In addition, children were more likely to form play relationships with peers who were similar to their own levels of PE. Over the course of the school year, children’s level of PE and EC changed such that they became more similar to their playmates in levels of these traits. Finally, we observed moderate to strong rank-order stability of behavioral observations of PE, NE, and EC across the school year. Our results provide evidence for the effects of traits on the formation of play relationships, as well as for the role of these play relationships in shaping trait expression over time.

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Young children’s experiences and skills in kindergarten may shape their engagement in society later in life

This study shows that cognitive skills and experiences like classroom-based play in kindergarten are good predictors to participation in extracurricular activities in 8th grade among children growing up in poverty. But still a bit of a warning: this study is pretty close to a causal relation, but despite the interesting longitudinal approach it’s still not 100% imho. The causal explanation is as follows – from the conclusion:

The amount of time kindergarten children spend in self-directed classroom activities predicts the number of hours in school sponsored extracurricular activities in 8th grade. Additionally, when controlling for EF and demographics, participation in school clubs in 8th grade was predicted by the interaction of the frequency of use of materials such as art, music and dramatic play and number of interest areas in kindergarten.

You can wonder how much of this time spend on arts in kindergarten isn’t influenced by e.g. the parents opting for this kind of school, but still it’s very interesting (and any plea for arts is ok in my book).

From the press release:

The findings, published in Applied Developmental Science, look at extracurricular activities as precursors to civic engagement, the building blocks for a healthy democracy.

“This study provides first-time empirical evidence that young children’s experiences and skills in kindergarten may shape their engagement in society later in life,” said study author Jennifer Astuto, research assistant professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt and director of playLabNYU, which studies the role of play in children’s lives.

“The developmental skill, executive function, and engagement in classroom-based play are not only important for being ‘school-ready,’ but also may be unique pathways to becoming ‘civic ready’ for children growing up in the context of poverty in America.”

In civic engagement research there has been a focus on examining the gap in civic engagement among low-income communities and their higher-income counterparts. However, little research has focused on how civic engagement develops early in life, as opposed to in adolescence or adulthood, despite the fact that young children indeed are active citizens in school, home, and peer groups.

What has been studied widely in young children is executive function, which represents the intersection of cognitive and social-emotional competencies. Three core executive functions – inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility – are viewed as fundamental developmental skills for later civic engagement.

“We view executive functions as the foundation for productive engagement in society. For example, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility may allow young children to be active listeners to the social needs of others,” Astuto said.

Classroom-based play provides an opportunity for children to develop executive functions, including controlling emotions, resisting impulses, and exerting self-control. Through play, children learn to become a member of a social group and follow rules, foreshadowing the skills and behaviors of a civically engaged adolescent or adult.

“When young children are engaged in play they have the opportunity to create and develop ideas – as well as a sense of community – with other children. Sharing and encouraging each other’s curiosity and imagination through play can build a sense of appreciation for the value of working together toward a common goal, even when differences exist,” Astuto said.

To examine the developmental origins of civic engagement in children growing up in poverty, the researchers used the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class (ECLS-K), developed by the U.S. Department of Education. A nationally representative sample of 22,782 children enrolled in kindergarten during the 1998-1999 school year participated in ECLS-K; these students were followed from kindergarten through 8th grade. This study focused on 7,675 students who were defined as living in poverty in kindergarten.

Using statistical models, the researchers looked at two factors in kindergarten – children’s executive function and exposure to play in the classroom – and how they contributed to the students’ participation in different extracurricular activities in 8th grade. Other civic engagement research suggests that when youth participate in school-sponsored activities, they are more likely to take part in civic behaviors later in life such as volunteering, voting, or reaching out to public officials.

The researchers found that greater executive function predicted participation in drama and music clubs, sports, and the overall number of hours spent in extracurricular activities. Engagement in classroom-based play was also a significant predictor of participation in clubs and activities in middle school after controlling for executive function. For example, how frequently children used play-based materials in kindergarten such as art supplies, theatre props, and musical instruments predicted whether they played sports during 8th grade.

The results speak to the unique role of play in early childhood classrooms today, particularly within low-income communities.

“Young children’s first social blueprint is the early childhood classroom setting, which is ripe for the development of skills and exposure to experiences which build the foundation for future engagement,” Astuto said. “Because of the structural disparities that lead to differences of civic engagement between the economically advantaged and those growing up in poverty, it is critical that we identify, support, and cultivate skills and experiences for children and youth which addresses this inequality.”

Abstract of the study:

In the United States a “civic engagement gap” persists between low-income youth and their higher-income counterparts. To examine the developmental origins of civic engagement in a sample of U.S. children growing up in poverty, a conceptual model was tested employing the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class (ECLS-K) national data set. Using generalized linear models, we examined the contributions of kindergarten children’s executive function and exposure to classroom based play to participation in different extracurricular activities in 8th grade. Results suggest that executive function is a significant predictor of participation in drama and music clubs, sports and number of hours spent in extracurricular activities. Play was also a significant predictor of participation in school clubs, while controlling for executive function. These findings provide initial evidence of a developmental trajectory toward civic engagement beginning in early childhood.

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Sad… how inaccurate are introductory psychology textbooks? #urbanmyths

Long live Twitter as sometimes it can be a source of pretty depressing studies, like this tweet:

It’s good that some myths aren’t covered, but that still many myths persist in introductory textbooks is a call to action.

This study is a nice follow up to the teacher training report earlier this year, do check the abstract:

The introductory psychology class represents the first opportunity for the field to present new students with a comprehensive overview of psychological research. Writing introductory psychology textbooks is challenging given that authors need to cover many areas they themselves may not be intimately familiar with. This challenge is compounded by problems within the scholarly community in which controversial topics may be communicated in ideological terms within scholarly discourse. Psychological science has historically seen concerns raised about the mismatch between claims and data made about certain fields of knowledge, apprehensions that continue in the present “replication crisis.” The concern is that, although acting in good faith, introductory psychology textbook authors may unwittingly communicate information to readers that is factually untrue. Twenty-four leading introductory psychology textbooks were surveyed for their coverage of a number of controversial topics (e.g., media violence, narcissism epidemic, multiple intelligences) and scientific urban legends (e.g., Kitty Genovese, Mozart Effect) for their factual accuracy. Results indicated numerous errors of factual reporting across textbooks, particularly related to failing to inform students of the controversial nature of some research fields and repeating some scientific urban legends as if true. Recommendations are made for improving the accuracy of introductory textbooks.

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Filed under Education, Myths, Psychology, Research, Review