Category: Developmental

Study Suggests There Is Not A “Sensitive Period” For Developing Musical Skills

By Emma Young

Mozart famously started playing the piano and composing while still a young child. But if he hadn’t started musical practice then, would his future achievements have been as impressive? Is there, in other words, a “sensitive period” in which the brain is especially susceptible to musical stimulation, and during which a person must start to acquire musical skills in order to achieve their full potential — as is the case for visual perception, say, or language acquisition? There has been a lot of debate about this, but now a major new study of professional musicians and identical and non-identical twins in Sweden suggests not. 

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Children Are Much Less Likely Than Adults To Prioritise Human Over Animal Lives

By Emma Young

“Two boats are sinking and you can save only one. One holds two dogs, the other a person. Which do you save? If you’re not sure, you can say, ‘I can’t decide.’” When I put this to my 11-year-old, his response was immediate: “Save the dogs!” In his defence, he has grown up with a pet dog, which he adores — and, according to a new study in Psychological Science, most other kids would say the same thing.

To adults, these findings might seem a little alarming. Indeed, when the team put similar questions (varying the numbers of dogs, pigs and people) to adult participants, 61% opted to save one human over 100 dogs (which does mean of course that nearly 40% didn’t), and 85% of people prioritised one human over one dog, while 93% opted to save a human rather than a single pig (3% went for the pig).

When the team asked 249 kids aged between five and nine about what they thought, though, they found that just over 70% opted to let a person die to save 100 dogs. When it came to one human vs one dog, only about a third of the children opted to save the person, 28% were clear on going for the dog, and the rest couldn’t decide.

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Here’s How Personality Changes In Young Adulthood Can Lead To Greater Career Satisfaction

By Emily Reynolds

Personality traits were once thought to be fairly stable. But recent research has suggested that our personality can alter over time — whether that’s due to ageing or because we decide to change our traits ourselves. And as personality is linked to our behaviour, it follows that we might see different life outcomes as our personality shifts or grows.

In a new study in Psychological Science, Kevin A. Hoff and team look at the personality changes of teenagers as they move into adulthood. And they find that certain shifts in personality can result in real-world benefits during the early years of a career, suggesting that interventions that increase particular traits and skills could make all the difference at work.

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Here’s How Parents’ Reactions To School Performance Influence Their Children’s Wellbeing

By Emma Young

What do you do if your child comes home with a lower score on a test than you both expected? Do you praise their efforts and focus on what they got right? Or do you home in on the answers that they got wrong, hoping this will help them to do better in future?

Research shows that the first, “success-oriented” response is more common in the US than in China, where parents more often opt for “failure-oriented” responses instead. Recent studies in both countries have found that success-oriented responses tend to encourage psychological wellbeing but not necessarily academic success, whereas failure-oriented responses can foster academic performance, but with a cost to the child’s wellbeing.

Jun Wei at Tsinghua University, China, and colleagues wondered what might drive these observed relationships: do different response styles lead children to form different concepts about what their parents want for them — and is this what produces the opposing impacts on wellbeing? In a new paper, published in Developmental Psychology, the team report some intriguing answers to these questions.

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Babies Relax When Listening To Unfamiliar Lullabies From Other Cultures

By Emma Young

The controversial idea that there are universals in the ways we use music received a boost in 2018, with the finding that people from 60 different countries were pretty good at judging whether a totally unfamiliar piece of music from another culture was intended to soothe a baby or to be danced to. Now, new research involving some of the same team has revealed that foreign lullabies that babies have never heard before work to relax them. 

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Children Can Acquire Fear Vicariously, By Watching Their Parents’ Reactions

By Emma Young

How do children learn to fear things that aren’t obviously scary, but that do pose a threat — to learn, say, that touching the base of a lit barbecue is a very bad idea, so should never be done? A parent might explain that it’s dangerously hot. But as a new paper published in Scientific Reports explores in detail, we also benefit from another more direct, wordless method of learning about threats. Or rather, we may typically benefit from it — but, Marie-France Marin at the University of Quebec and her colleagues argue, it might also help to explain how anxiety disorders are transmitted down through generations.

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A New Take On The Marshmallow Test: Children Wait Longer For A Treat When Their Reputation Is At Stake

 By guest blogger Sofia Deleniv

Most people — even the non-psychologists among us — have at some point heard of the legendary marshmallow test, which measures the ability of preschool children to wait for a sweet treat. Researchers have found that the amount of time children are willing to wait for their marshmallow is surprisingly predictive of various life outcomes, such as educational attainment during adolescence, as well as social competence and resilience to stress throughout development. A recent fMRI brain scan study even found that people’s performance as kids is related to their ability to suppress their impulses, and is reflected in neurological signatures of cognitive control, 40 years later.

The test is clearly tapping into something crucial that shapes children’s futures to a considerable degree. But what exactly is it? Does the test  capture an ability that is akin to intelligence or intrinsic cognitive control, or might performance be a marker of some other underlying factor — such as the privilege of living in a supportive home where children can develop the trust capacity that enables them to wait for a reward?

The list of potential explanations is long — and now it has received a surprising new addition from a study recently published in Psychological Science. Fengling Ma from Zhejiang Sci-Tech University and colleagues have discovered that children can radically improve their performance on the marshmallow test if they believe their social reputation might be at stake — an effect that begins to emerge as early as three years of age.

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Here’s How The Experience Of Regret Develops Through Childhood

By Emma Young

Edith Piaf famously regretted nothing. But regret is an important emotion, because it can lead us to avoid repeating mistakes, or to heal damaged relationships. It’s also an emotion that many of us feel on a regular basis. “Regret is ubiquitous and powerful,” write Teresa McCormack at Queen’s University Belfast and colleagues in a new paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science. “It is one of the most frequently mentioned emotions in conversation and affects a huge variety of everyday choices.”

Though there’s been plenty of work on regret in adults, much less is known about how it develops in children. In this new review, McCormack and her colleagues consider what we do know about its development, and outline the major gaps still left to fill. There are implications not just for the basic understanding of regret but also for informing educators in nurseries and schools. After all, even young children are expected to feel bad about harming others — but, depending on their age, there are limits to just what they can feel in such a scenario.

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Even Imaginary Barriers Can Prevent Kids From Cheating On Tests

By Emma Young

How can you discourage kids from copying each other on tests? You could always use a simple frame to separate them, or even a ruler to draw an imaginary line between their desks. When these behavioural “nudge” techniques were used in new research published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, they significantly reduced cheating among 5 to 6-year-olds. This shows “that even seemingly unremarkable features of children’s environments can nudge them to act honestly,” write the researchers, led by Li Zhao at Hangzhou Normal University in China.

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Adults Put Off Crucial Conversations About Race Because They Mistakenly Think Young Children Won’t Understand

By Emily Reynolds

Conversations about race are not always easy, as the writer Reni Eddo-Lodge has recently explored in her brilliant book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. But they’re no less necessary for it: not talking about racism is simply not an option, particularly for those of us who benefit from structural inequality.

We all have a part to play in this ongoing dialogue — including parents of children growing up in a world full of racial injustice. Previous research has suggested that constructive conversations about race and ethnicity can have positive outcomes for children of all races — increased empathy, an ability to learn about and accept different perspectives, a better understanding of their own identity, and less racial bias.

But a new paper from Jessica Sullivan at Skidmore College and colleagues, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggests that those crucial conversations are being delayed — because parents are misjudging their children’s ability to process and understand race.

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