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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s well known that teenagers’ moods go through drastic changes. In particular, depressive symptoms – like feelings of low mood or self-loathing – tend to increase as they grow older. Now researchers have plotted out the exact trajectory of these depressive symptoms. In their recent paper in Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Alex Kwong and colleagues from the University of Bristol report for the first time the points during teen development when symptoms increase most rapidly, on average – and they find that these timings differ between young men and women.
Most people find it easy to infer the emotional state underlying a scowl or beaming smile. But not all facial emotional signals are so obvious. Sensitivity to these less obvious emotional signals varies from one person to another and is a useful skill, improving relations with other people and benefiting psychological wellbeing. As well as varying between individuals, are there also shifts in this ability during a typical person’s life? And, if so, might these age-related changes be relevant to known high-risk periods for psychological problems and the onset of mental illness? A new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, provides some answers.
Claims that violent video games lead to aggression have been around since the days of Space Invaders. When young people are exposed to violent media, the theory goes, their aggressive thoughts become more prominent, leading them to commit acts of violence. But while several studies have found results that seem to back up this idea, the evidence is far from unequivocal.
Now a study published in Royal Society Open Sciencehas failed to find any association between the time spent playing violent video games and aggressive behaviour, adding to a growing body of literature that suggests that such a link has been overstated – or may not exist at all.
Anyone who has stood in the supermarket aisle trying to remember their shopping list might have wished for a larger brain. But when it comes to memory, bigger isn’t always better. A study published in Neuropsychologia has found that young children whose cerebral cortex is thinner in certain areas also tend to have better working memory.
Sure, it’s unlikely that a girl would ride a hippo or that a boy would drink onion juice, but as adults, we know that it’s not impossible. However, and in contrast to adults’ reasoning, for some time researchers have noticed a “striking phenomenon” (to quote the authors of a new paper) in young children’s thinking – that is, up to around the age of eight, they frequently assume that improbable events are actually impossible. In their paper in Developmental Psychology, Celina Bowman-Smith at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues have investigated whether asking children to consider the possibility of hypothetical events in a distant, far away country might help them to overcome this closed-minded thinking and realise that improbable doesn’t mean impossible.