Update: Today, 15 March 2018, the authors of the research reported below have alerted us to a major correction to their analyses: read their full correction. In short, the sex differences in regional brain volumes in one-month-old infants were no longer statistically significant after controlling for sex differences in total brain volume. Much of our discussion below is now nullified because it pertained to results that were not in fact obtained.
On average, men and women differ psychologically in small but reliable ways, such as in personality, interests, and cognitive performance, but the basis of these differences is up for debate. Are they innate or due to how we’re socialised?
Neuroscientists look for traction on this question by studying sex differences in the brain, premised on the idea that these might contribute to the observed psychological differences. However, studying the brains of adults, or even teenagers, still leads to spinning wheels, because culturally produced differences will show up in the brain too. But how about one-month old infants, the subjects of a paper published in the journal Brain Structure and Function? Since birth, babies at this age have spent most of their time sleeping and suckling with limited eyesight, so profound socialisation effects aren’t going to be a factor. And yet, the new findings reveal that sex differences in a number of brain areas are already apparent.
It’s widely accepted children’s development reflects an interaction between their genes and the environment they are raised in. More tentative is the intriguing idea that the role of the environment is more consequential for some children than others. According to this view, a minority of children are environmentally sensitive “orchids” who suffer disproportionately in adversity, but who especially thrive in positive conditions.
To date, research into this idea has been stifled by the lack of a short, reliable test of children’s Environmental Sensitivity. As reported in Developmental Psychology, a team led by Michael Pluess at Queen Mary University of London has now developed a 12-item scale for this purpose. Preliminary work using the test supports the importance of the Environmental Sensitivity concept and suggests children fall into three groups: orchids; dandelions, who are relatively unaffected by the environment; and tulips, who are midway between the two.
It’s a question that goes to the heart of human nature – do our personalities change through life or stay essentially the same? You might think psychology would have a definitive answer, but this remains an active research question. This is partly because of the practical challenge of testing the same group of individuals over many years. Now a major new contribution to the topic has been made available online at the PsyArXiv repository. The researchers, led by Eileen Graham at Northwestern University, have compared and combined data from 14 previously published longitudinal studies, together involving nearly 50,000 participants from the US, Europe and Scandinavia. Their findings confirm and extend existing knowledge, showing how personality traits tend to change through life in predictable ways.
“Like a ball rolling down a hill, time often seems to pick up momentum, going faster and faster as we get older…,” write the authors of a new paper in Self and Identity that aims to explain the reasons for this phenomenon. Understand it properly, and it might be possible to stop it – because as Mark Landau at the University of Kansas, US, and his colleagues also note: “Perceiving life as rapidly slipping away is psychologically harmful: unpleasant, demotivating, and possibly even hostile to the sense that life is meaningful.”
Adolescence is when values and relationships are formed and things happen that leave their sticky fingerprints on the life that follows. Even, it seems, in the everyday functioning of brain systems. New research published in Developmental Science shows that when teenagers have a positive relationship with their parents, then as adults their brains and bodies respond to stress in a way that helps them better engage with the world. However, the study suggests this benefit may be denied to those raised in a rough environment, which seems to override the influence of positive parenting.
What kind of parents produce creative children? Aside from the clear and substantial influence of the genes they pass on, evidence suggests that parents can also influence their children’s creativity through providing encouragement and the right environment. To understand what kind of parents are more inclined to take these steps, a new study in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity investigates the links between mothers’ personality and how much they cultivate for their child a ”climate of creativity”.
There are many effective psychological therapies to help teenagers with depression, anxiety or other mental health problems. Unfortunately, for various reasons, most teenagers never get access to a professional therapist. To overcome this problem, some researchers are exploring the potential of brief, “single-session” interventions that can be delivered cheaply and easily to many at-risk teenagers outside of a clinical context. In The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Jessica Schleider and John Weisz at Harvard University present extremely promising results from their trial of a 30-minute computer session teaching depressed and anxious teenagers that personality is malleable.
Do their homework or reach over there for the iPad and dive into a world of games? It’s the ever-present dilemma facing young children today. Here’s a simple technique that could tip the balance a little in favour of the homework. Psychologists have reported in Child Development that when four- to six-year-olds pretended to be Batman while they were doing a boring but important task, it helped them to resist distraction and stay more focused. The challenge now is to nail down exactly why the technique works, and to see if over time it could improve children’s self-regulation skills without them needing to go through the ritual of pretending to be someone else.
If you believed the copious alarmist commentary in the newspapers, you’d fear for the future of our species. Today’s children, we’re told, are more hyperactive and technology addicted than ever before. They’ve lost any ability to sit still, instead craving constant stimulation from digital devices and exhausted parents.
What might this mean for their performance on the most famous psychological measure of childhood self-control, Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test? Surely, kids of today will struggle far more than previous generations to resist the lure of one marshmallow (or other treat) now for the promise of two in ten minutes or so, as the task requires? In a new survey, the majority of child development experts certainly believed so.
Yet based on his analysis of 50 years worth of performance data on the Marshmallow Test – released as a preprint at the Open Science Framework – John Protzko at the University of California, Santa Barbara, concludes that in fact children of today are capable of more self-restraint than previous generations, with their ability to delay gratification having increased by about a minute per decade over the last 50 years.
Even the most scientifically trained among us have an instinct for mystical thinking – seeing purpose in nature, for example, or reading meaning in random coincidences. Psychologists think this is to do with the way our minds work at a fundamental level. We have evolved to be highly attuned to concepts relevant to our social lives, things like intentions and fairness. And we just can’t switch off this way of thinking, even when we’re contemplating the physical world.
This may explain the intuitive appeal of the Buddhist and Hindu notion of karmic justice – the idea, essentially, that you get what you deserve in life; that the cosmos rewards those who do good (variations of this idea are also spread by other religions). Indeed, in a new paper in Developmental Science, psychologists at Yale University have shown that children in the US as young as four are inclined to believe in, and actively seek, karmic justice, regardless of whether they come from a religious family or not.
“We conclude that, beginning early in development, children expect that life events are not purely random occurrences, but instead that they happen for an intended reason, such as rewarding people for their good behaviour,” said the study authors Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom.