Category: Developmental

A religious upbringing strengthens children’s belief in divine miracles, but not magic

By Emily Reynolds

Children are exposed to all kinds of stories, fact and fiction. Books about figures such as Rosa Parks or Jesse Owens teach young people about history, while novels are populated with colourful characters like Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins. Religious figures often represent a middle ground, both real and fantastical. So how do children differentiate between fantasy and real life figures — and how does religious teaching affect the way they make these kinds of distinctions?

A new study, published in Memory & Cognition, finds that a religious upbringing leads kids to judge religious stories as real. But, interestingly, this doesn’t seem to make non-religious magical stories seem real.

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Here’s how our ability to empathise changes as we get older

By Emma Young

How does age affect our ability to empathise? Some researchers think that our ability to understand and respond to others’ feelings follows an inverted U-shaped pattern, with empathic skills peaking in middle age before declining again in older age. But as Michelle Kelly at the University of Newcastle and colleagues point out in their paper in Neuropsychology, findings in this field have been mixed. Their new work, on 231 adults aged 17-94, suggests that while people aged over 65 aren’t quite as good at “cognitive empathy” (working out what someone is likely to be feeling), they are just as good at “feeling with” others.

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Children’s books still feature more male than female protagonists

By Emily Reynolds

There are many fields in which women are underrepresented: in certain areas of education and academia, in politics, and in senior leadership roles. Efforts have been made across sectors to improve this representation, as we’ve particularly covered in the case of STEM.

Unequal representation may start before the workplace or university, however — even before school. Exploring children’s literature, a new study in PLOS One from researchers at Princeton and Emory universities finds an overrepresentation of male protagonists in children’s books, potentially reinforcing damaging societal expectations for those of all genders.

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We feel more nostalgic as we get older — but it’s not always a positive experience

By Emily Reynolds

A song, a place, a smell… it doesn’t take much to be transported back in time. Just as with Proust and his madeleines, we all have specific memories that not only provoke nostalgia but trigger intense emotions.

And while nostalgia is often framed as a positive thing — a fond wistfulness — this isn’t always the case, as the University of Akron’s Jennifer R. Turner and Jennifer Tehan Stanley explore in a recent paper published in Emotion. They find that nostalgia is more common the older we get — and it can also set off both positive and negative feelings.

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Once A Meanie, Always A Meanie: Toddlers Are Harsh Judges Of Moral Character

By guest blogger Sofia Deleniv

Over the past ten years, developmental psychologists have been astounded by the young age at which children appear to be aware of the moral qualities of others’ actions. At just four months, babies already react with surprise when others engage in unequal distribution of treats and resources. They also snub these unfair individuals in social interactions by the age of 24 months and expect others to do the same. Other forms of moral judgement may emerge even sooner: as early as 3 months of age, infants show distinct preferences for those who help, as opposed to hinder, others.

In thinking about these nascent moral judgements, researchers have become interested in figuring out their underlying mental “structure”. Do children’s moral rules operate like a loose “‘anthology”, where judgements passed on the basis of one principle have little effect on judgements on the basis of another? Or is there a deeper underpinning mental framework that gives rise to a multitude of connected moral expectations?  

A recent study in PNAS by a duo of American researchers breaks new ground on this fascinating question. It reveals that toddlers are guided by a core mental representation of what it means to be a moral person (albeit with some potentially concerning caveats). Within this moral framework, a single faux pas risks entirely sweeping an individual from a child’s good books.  

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Researchers Want To Create Safe, Inclusive Virtual Reality Hangouts For Teens

By Emma L. Barratt

The advent of the internet shifted how we socialise. Chat rooms, forums, and eventually social media platforms opened up new ways to both communicate and express ourselves. Online anonymity, for example, allowed us to be whoever we pleased to anyone with a connection — for better or worse. Psychological research followed this shift, and decades later there are troves of papers on almost every aspect of online interaction you could hope to explore.

As technology continues to march onwards, it’s brought with it increasingly accessible options for socialising in virtual reality (VR). Though VR is by definition virtual, the experiences users have in it are very much real. Since VR’s accessibility is so recent, we currently don’t have good understanding of what users get out of socialising in these spaces, or even a solid grasp of potential risks associated with them. With rapidly increasing uptake, especially in a time of mass isolation, that’s a pretty big blind spot.

However, work by soon-to-be PhD graduate Divine Maloney at Clemson University is beginning to fill this gap. His PhD research has focused primarily on understanding VR social spaces and designing safe, equitable, and fulfilling VR spaces for young users.

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Only Children Are No More Selfish Than Those With Siblings

By Emma Young

Do you think that an only child behaves differently to a kid with siblings? If you do, you’re hardly alone. Stereotypes about only children being spoiled, self-centred “little emperors” abound. In 2019, though, research in Germany concluded that while the idea that only children are more narcissistic is widespread, it’s wrong. Now a team in China has failed to find any evidence for another of the clichés: that only children are more selfish.

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Immature Jokes: What Kids’ Humour Can Tell Us About Their Ability To Empathise

By Emma L. Barratt

There’s nothing less funny than explaining a joke. But analysing humour can actually tell us a lot about the development of sympathy and empathy in children.

Having a joke land is a complex task which requires an in-depth understanding of both the situation and mental state of the person on the receiving end. One audience, for example, might find a joke hilarious, whereas another might find that same joke wildly offensive.

Zeroing in on the appropriate joke, therefore, is likely to require a good amount of empathy. This ability to imagine the thoughts and feelings of your audience is pivotal to humour being well-received, but the relationship between humour and empathy has only been addressed in a handful of studies so far. However, new research from Caitlin Halfpenny and Lucy James at Keele University gives us a window into how empathy shapes humour by taking a look at junior schoolchildren’s use of jokes, and the different humour styles that emerge with different levels of empathy and sympathy.

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Tackling Income Inequality Could Boost Children’s Vocabulary

By Emily Reynolds

In 1995, a seminal book was published suggesting that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were exposed to 30 million fewer words than richer children by the age of 4 — the so-called “word gap”. The idea is now widespread and has informed early childhood policy in the United States (though the findings are more contentious than this ubiquity might suggest).

But why might these kids be exposed to fewer words? A new study from a team at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that worries about financial insecurity reduced the amount that caregivers spoke to their small children, suggesting that these concerns themselves could be at least partly responsible for the word gap.

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Older People Are More Likely To Avoid Finding Out Information Like Genetic Disease Risk Or Spousal Infidelity

By Emma Young

If proof of the existence or otherwise of a god-like deity was available, would you want to see it? What if you had access to a file that revealed whether your partner had ever been unfaithful? And would you take a new genetic test that would indicate whether you have a mutation linked to an incurable disease?

“All men, by nature, desire to know,” wrote Aristotle, more than 2,000 years ago. In fact, as the authors of a new paper in Psychology and Aging point out, philosophers have long viewed people as having a thirst for knowledge, and a drive to resolve uncertainty. However, as Ralph Hertwig at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany and his colleagues also note, there are times when we prefer not to know the truth, and even bury our heads in the sand. Older people are often seen as being more prone to doing this. And the team’s research now suggests that this is indeed the case: people aged over 51 were more likely than younger people to choose to remain ignorant of information that would have an emotional impact on them — perhaps a positive impact, but perhaps a negative one.

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