Category: Developmental

“Callous” Children No More Likely To Display Psychopathy As Adults – But May Be At Greater Risk Of Committing Violent Crime

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By Emma Young

Is it possible to spot the signs of future psychopathy in a child? Some researchers have argued that it is by looking at the child’s level of “interpersonal callousness” (IC), or the extent to which they are manipulative, dishonest, and show a lack of guilt, remorse or distress at being punished. Indeed, previous studies have found that children who rank high for IC are more likely to develop psychopathic features, as well as to commit violent offences in adolescence and adulthood. So, case closed?

Not according to a new study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. This work, led by Meagan Docherty and Jordan Beardslee at Arizona State University, suggests that other important risk factors for these negative outcomes in adolescence and adulthood haven’t been properly taken into account — and that when they are, the apparent link between childhood callousness and psychopathy in adulthood disappears.

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Teens Who Struggle To Differentiate Their Negative Emotions Are More Prone To Stress-Induced Depression

GettyImages-678525312.jpgBy Emma Young

The first step to dealing with a negative emotion is to identify it. If you’re feeling irritated, restless or guilty, the most effective way to start feeling better will be different in each case. The trouble is, if your sense of your own emotions is not that fine-grained – if you feel just “bad” or “upset” – you may struggle to identify the cause of your distress, making it tricky to self-regulate your emotions. 

Plenty of studies have linked a poor ability to differentiate between negative emotions (known as “low Negative Emotion Differentiation” or “low NED” for short) to depression. But this work has mostly been conducted at a single point in time (i.e. having a “cross-sectional” design), making it impossible to tell whether difficulties with emotional differentiation cause depression or vice versa. The research has also overwhelmingly involved adults, and yet it is adolescence that is most marked by low NED (even more than in early childhood) and depression. This mismatch in the literature motivated Lisa Starr at the University of Rochester and her colleagues to conduct a longitudinal study on adolescents, published recently in Emotion. They looked not only at teenagers’ NED and depressive symptoms over time, but also their experience of minor daily hassles and more serious stressful life events.  

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How A Mother’s Odour Helps Her Baby Develop A Sensitivity To Faces

GettyImages-926657584.jpgBy Emma Young

A newborn baby knows almost nothing about the world it comes into. To make sense of the onslaught of incoming sensory information, she or he must start to notice meaningful patterns and categorise them: that particular combination of visual data signifies a “face”, for example, while that noise is a “voice”. As the authors of a new paper in Developmental Science point out, “without this fundamental categorisation function, our nervous systems would be overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of our experience.” 

It had been thought that infants form these categories using information from just one sense, whichever is the most relevant. Following this account, the category of “faces” results from an accumulation of visual information about what faces look like. However, an intriguing new study, involving four-month-old infants and their mothers’ smelly t-shirts, suggests that babies’ early acquisition of the faces category is a truly multi-sensory process. 

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The “Recency Effect” Is Especially Pronounced In Children – An Important Finding For Researchers And Parents

GettyImages-1127508247.jpgBy guest blogger Bradley Busch

As father to an 18-month-old toddler, I would love to know exactly what my son is thinking. Along with many parents, one of the ways I try to find out is to ask him questions of the variety “Do you want X or Y?” But does his answer to this type of question actually reveal his preference or is it a more a reflection of a quirky cognitive bias that is more powerful in children than adults?

Two competing effects influence how adults respond to binary choices. The first is called “The Primary Effect” which describes the way that the first option we hear tends to stick in our minds. For example, one study found that adults are more likely to choose “heads” when asked if a coin toss is going to be “heads or tails”.  The second effect, which sometimes contrasts with the Primary Effect, is called “The Recency Effect”. This captures the way that the last thing we hear or experience can also have more weight in our memory (this is why popstars end their concerts on their best songs, so that everyone leaves thinking the whole gig was great). In adults, neither the Primary Effect or the Recency Effect is always the more pronounced, with evidence suggesting that one’s personality type, familiarity of the information, and how controversial the topic is, all play a mediating role.

Keen to test if the same is true in young children, or if one of the effects is more dominant, a team led by Emily Sumner conducted two experiments and published their findings in a recent paper in PLOS One fantastically titled “Cake or Broccoli: Recency Biases Children’s Verbal Responses”.

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Thinking About Their Multiple Identities Boosts Children’s Creativity And Problem-Solving Skills

GettyImages-478513620.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

It usually helps to “get a fresh pair of eyes” on a problem, especially from someone with a different perspective than your own. But what if you could find a variety of vantage points from within yourself? After all, each of us has multiple roles and identities in life. In a new paper in Developmental Science, a team led by Sarah Gaither at Duke University presents evidence that prompting children to think about their own multiple identities boosts their problem-solving skills and increases their flexible thinking.

“Someone can be a woman and White, a teacher and a parent, a girl and a friend,” the researchers write. “Although individuals may not automatically reflect on their multiple identities, here we propose that when they do, it may have positive consequences for their creative problem solving and flexible thinking.”

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Largest Observational Study Of Its Kind Finds Talkative Parents Have Kids With Better Cognitive Skills – But It’s Not Clear Why

GettyImages-644959968.jpgBy Matthew Warren

The idea that more talkative parents have children with superior language or cognitive skills has a long – and sometimes controversial – history. An influential study from the early 1990s claimed that American children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have poorer language development because they hear fewer words from their parents. But scientists have pointed out several issues with this early research – including that it involved researchers going into people’s homes to record them, potentially affecting the language they used. 

Since then, other researchers in the United States have researched families’ use of language in a less intrusive way – and found that any effects may be more subtle than originally claimed. Now, in what they say is the “largest naturalistic observation study of early life home environments to date”, scientists have brought these methods across the pond. A study of more than 100 London families, published recently in Developmental Psychology, has found that the quantity of language used by parents is related to children’s cognitive skills – but exactly why remains unclear.

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Researchers Have Investigated “Derailment” (Feeling Disconnected From Your Past Self) As A Cause And Consequence Of Depression

By Christian Jarrett

We move house, change jobs, begin new relationships, yet most of the time, most of us still experience a thread of inner continuity – a constant feeling of me-ness that transcends the various chapters of our lives. Indeed, there’s evidence that having a stable, constant sense of self and identity is important for psychological wellbeing. However, this thread can rupture, leading to an uncomfortable disconnect between who we feel we are today, and the person that we believe we used to be – a state that psychologists recently labelled “derailment”.

Now in a paper in Clinical Psychological Science a group led by Kaylin Ratner at Cornell University has explored the possibility that derailment both precipitates, and is a consequence of, depression. After all, people with depression often struggle with motivation, losing the will to pursue goals they previously held dear. They also frequently withdraw from their relationships and social roles. All of these changes could trigger sensations of derailment. Or perhaps derailment comes first, with the inner disorientation leaving one vulnerable to depression. Surprisingly these questions have been little studied before now. “We nominate derailment as a new feature of the depressive landscape and underscore the need for greater empirical and practical attention at the crossroads of mental health and human development,” Ratner and her team write.

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Teenagers Define Themselves Mostly In Terms Of Their Positive Traits; Adults More In Terms Of Their Social Roles

GettyImages-184374286.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Write down the unfinished statement “I am …” twenty times. Now think to yourself “Who am I?” and complete as many of the “I am …” statements as you can in the next five minutes or less.

This is the Twenty Statements Test and it’s designed to assess how we see ourselves – our “self-concept”. For their new paper in the journal Memory, a team at the University of Reading, led by Emily Hards, gave this test to 822 teenagers (aged 13-18) from three schools in England, with the additional instruction “not to think too much about the responses and not to worry about the order/importance of the statements”.

While it’s widely recognised that adolescence is a crucial period for the establishment of our sense of self, little is actually known about how teenagers’ generally see themselves. Indeed, this is the first time that teenagers’ own self-generated descriptions of themselves (what the researchers call their “self-images”) have been gathered in a systematic way.

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First Study To Investigate How Attachment Style Changes Through Multiple Decades Of Life

By Christian Jarrett

Attachment theory, which was first proposed in the 1950s by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, is one of the most influential in psychology. It argues for the importance of our earliest relationships with our caregivers, and predicts that these formative bonds will shape the nature of our connections with other people for the rest of our lives. Remarkably, however, psychologists still know relatively little about how people’s attachment style – essentially their characteristic style of relating to other people – typically varies through life. “How do attachment orientations change across the life span? Unfortunately … this critical question has eluded researchers,” write William Chopik and colleagues in their recently published paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Their research is the first to document how attachment style varies, on average, through decades of the lifespan, from age 13 to 72. The results suggest that, like other aspects of personality, attachment style is relatively stable through life, but that it is not entirely fixed, and in particular that it may be shaped by our relationship experiences, as well as the varied social demands of different life stages. “The current study is one of the first truly longitudinal investigations into life span changes in attachment orientation and the antecedents of these changes,” write Chopik and his team.

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Researchers Say Growing Up With A Troubled Or Harsh Father Can Influence Women’s Expectations Of Men, And, In Turn, Their Sexual Behaviour

By Emma Young

The power (or powerlessness) of parents to shape their children for good or ill continues to preoccupy psychologists and the public alike. Among evolutionary-minded developmental psychologists, one specific idea is that girls’ later attitudes to relationships is influenced by their fathers’ behaviour. For instance, US research has found that girls with disengaged, harsh, and often absent fathers are known to start having sex at a younger age, and to have more sexual partners. However many questions about these findings remain. For example: might other aspects of the girls’ childhoods be involved; what about genetic effects; and which aspects of poor-quality fathering are the most consequential?  

A new study of pairs of sisters, published in Developmental Psychology, provides some specific answers, particularly that it is contact with a poor-quality father, not paternal absence, that affects their daughters’ later relationships, including their expectations of men, and, in turn, their sexual behaviour.  

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