Category: Developmental

Risk-taking teens’ brains seem to disregard past bad outcomes

Two Male Freerunners Jumping Over a Wall Performing ParkourBy guest blogger Lucy Foulkes

Adolescents take more risks than adults: they are more likely to binge drink, have casual sex, commit crimes and have serious car accidents. In fact, adolescence is a paradox because it is a time of peak physical fitness, but also the time when people are most likely to be injured or killed in an accident. For this reason, it’s critical to understand what drives teenagers to take more risks. To date, many explanations of teenage risk taking have focused on the positive side of these behaviours: the rewarding “kick” that comes from taking a risk that ends well. Some studies have shown that teenagers experience more of this rewarding feeling, and this contributes to the increased risk taking seen at this age.

Fewer studies have considered how teenagers respond when risks turn out badly. This is important because all our previous experiences, both good and bad, affect our subsequent behaviour. If we make a risky decision like gambling money, and it pays off, it’s more likely we’ll decide to gamble again in the near future. Equally, if we take a gamble and it turns out badly, we’ll probably be a bit more reserved next time. But it turns out that some teenagers don’t respond like this: according to a new study in NeuroImage, some of them do not adjust their behavior so readily when things go wrong, and this may be linked to a distinct pattern of activation in their brains.

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Circle time rituals help children beat the Marshmallow Test of self control

Group of kids repeat gesture after the teacherBy Christian Jarrett

Sweet, old-fashioned circle time rituals involve young children sitting in a circle with a teacher and copying his or her specific actions as closely as possible. These rituals can seem a bit out of place in today’s culture with its emphasis on the importance of independent thinking, and the ubiquity of interactive educational games employing the latest beeps and whistles of technology. But a new study in Child Development says there is something about the conformity and attention to detail in ritualistic games that makes them a highly effective way to improve children’s executive functioning (their mental nimbleness) and self-control.

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American women seem to be becoming less stereotypically feminine and more dominant

we_can_do_itBy Christian Jarrett

True gender equality may be a work in progress, but since the Women’s Liberation Movement beginning in the 1950s and 60s, there has been a lot of positive change, at least in most industrialised nations: a shift towards women having more control over whether and when to have children, for example, and increased opportunities in education and careers, and less tolerance of sexism (though of course it hasn’t gone away). How might these cultural and social changes have influenced women, in terms of how much they act in stereotypically “feminine” ways?

A new study by Constance Jones and her colleagues at California State and San Francisco State Universities in the Journal of Adult Development tried to find out by comparing two cohorts of women, one born in the 1920s and the other featuring “Baby Boomers” born in the 1950s. The findings support past work that’s shown how women tend to change through their lives, and they provide evidence for a generation effect: over time, at least in California, women seem to be becoming less stereotypically feminine – that is, less deferential, and more confident and ambitious.

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Two-year-olds seem to find helping others as rewarding as helping themselves

smiling child holding hand of woman at beachBy Christian Jarrett

If you’re in need of some renewed faith in human nature, the research literature on altruism by toddlers is a great place to look. Charming studies have shown that little children will readily go out of their way to help you, such as picking up things you’ve dropped, or passing you stuff you can’t reach. They can even do “paternalistic helping” which is when they ignore your specific request to help you in a way that you’ll find even more beneficial.

There are some evolutionarily tinged theoretical explanations for why children have these instincts: we’re a highly social species so it makes sense that we’re naturally inclined to help each other as a way to gain status and receive reciprocal favours later. A new paper in Developmental Psychology has taken a slightly different approach, asking: what is it, in the moment, that motivates toddlers to help others? Robert Hepach and his colleagues, including Michael Tomasello who’s conducted a lot of the landmark work on the development of altruism, report that toddlers are helpful, at least in part, because, well, they enjoy it. In fact, based on a new body-language measure of their emotion, they seem to find helping someone else about as pleasurable as they find helping themselves.

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Longest ever personality study finds no correlation between measures taken at age 14 and age 77

By Christian Jarrett

Imagine you’ve reached the fine age of 77 and you hear news of a school reunion. You’re going to have the chance to meet up with several of your former classmates who you haven’t seen since you were fourteen-years-old. They’ll look a lot different, of course, but what about their personality? Will they be broadly the same as they were back then?

Past research that’s looked at trait changes from adolescence to mid-life has shown there tends to be a moderate amount of stability, so too research that’s looked at changes from mid-life into old age. Put these two sets of data together and you might expect to see at least some personality stability across an entire lifespan. Your classmates probably won’t have changed completely.

Yet that’s not what a recent open-access study in Psychology and Aging has found: the first – to the authors’ knowledge – to measure personality in the same people in their adolescence and then again in old age. By covering a period of 63 years, this in a sense is the longest ever personality study. But contrary to what we might expect based on previous findings, Matthew Harris and his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh failed to find a significant correlation between their participants’ personality scores at age 14 and their scores on the same items at the age of 77. “Personality in older age may be quite different from personality in childhood,” they said.

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Timely study looks at the social influences possibly shaping teenagers’ prejudice towards immigrants

Migration to EuropeBy Christian Jarrett

Some would say that the political events currently convulsing the globe have been driven, at least in part, by widespread prejudice towards immigrants. To begin healing divisions, it would help if we understood more about how such prejudices can be passed from one generation to the next, so that we might intervene to stop this happening. To that end, a new study in the British Journal of Psychology has tracked the immigrant attitudes of over 500 Swedish teenagers over a six year period, to see how their attitudes changed over time, and if and how they might be related to the prejudices held by their parents and friends.

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Researchers surprised to find abused children less suggestible

Thoughtful and sad little girlBy Christian Jarrett

A hugely controversial topic in psychology concerns how likely it is that some or many claims of abuse made by children are actually based on false memories, possibly implanted through the suggestions of therapists or leading questions from investigators. A related issue is whether going through the terrible experience of being mistreated makes it more or less likely that a child will be prone to forming false memories based on the suggestions or leading questions of others. In a small but important new study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, a team led by Henry Otgaar at Maastricht University report that while a group of maltreated children were more prone to spontaneous false memories than control participants, they were in fact, to the researchers’ surprise, less prone to false memories based on suggestion. “This is a hitherto unreported finding,” they said.

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A promising study suggests teachers can train 8-year-olds in Theory of Mind

Teacher Calling on StudentBy Christian Jarrett

Theory of Mind is psychologist-speak for our ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to recognise that their thoughts and beliefs can be different from our own. Children begin to develop this ability around age three to four: it starts off fairly basic, in terms of understanding people can hold false beliefs, becoming more sophisticated as they get older, eventually taking in concepts like double bluffing and faux pas.

Of course, as with most things, kids vary in how adept they are at Theory of Mind, and there’s evidence that those with more skills in this area benefit in all sorts of ways, from their relationships to school achievement. Importantly, experiments have shown that this isn’t something that’s fixed, rather children can be trained fairly easily to improve their Theory of Mind by spending time talking about and reflecting upon characters’ perspectives in social scenarios.

These previous training studies have been contrived experiments delivered by researchers with the sessions conducted outside of normal classes. A promising but preliminary new study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology has made an important leap, taking the training to a more real-life setting, showing that a brief teacher-led intervention was able to boost eight- to nine-year-olds’ Theory of Mind, with the benefits still demonstrable two months later.

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Teenagers’ brains process risk differently when Mum is around

Woman glowing brain conceptBy Christian Jarrett

The traffic lights turn amber: should you brake or accelerate on through? If there’s a teenager at the wheel, the chances are he or she will put their foot down and keep going. Teenagers love taking risks, more so than any other age group. This is partly down to the immaturity of the teen brain: they do not yet show the same connectivity between frontal decision making areas and deeper reward-related brain areas, as compared with adults. But there’s also a social element. When an adult is around, teens tend to take fewer risks, and their brains show less reward-related activity after taking a risk, a phenomenon that psychologists call “social scaffolding” because it is as if the adult presence is helping the teen to attain adult-like behaviour. A new study in Developmental Science builds on these findings and makes the claim that a teenager’s brain is influenced to a greater extent by the presence of his or her mother than by an unfamiliar adult.  Continue reading “Teenagers’ brains process risk differently when Mum is around”

Four-year-olds’ knowledge of gender stereotypes foretells their gender bias a year later

Boy with toy firetruckBy Christian Jarrett 

Group loyalty is woven into our DNA. After being allocated to a category on the flimsiest of grounds, such as their matching shirt colour, children will show impressive favouritism toward their new group members, and antipathy toward outsiders. No wonder that once children learn about genders, and become aware of their own – which begins to happen in earnest from around age three – they soon after usually begin to show profound signs of loyalty toward and preference for their own gender. As the authors of a new study in Child Development put it, “Around the world, girls tend to play with girls, whereas boys tend to play with boys. Such stark separation is stunning, yet as adults we tend to accept this segregation without a thought and sometimes even encourage it.”

The aim of the new research was to find out how gender-biased beliefs and behaviour develop from age four to five. The researchers hope their findings might help encourage children to be less biased against the opposite gender, and therefore “benefit relationships between girls and boys, and future relationships between women and men.”

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