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.
Fussy eating – also referred to as “selective eating” in scholarly research – is incredibly common among children, with upper estimates placing the prevalence at 50 per cent. Despite this, many parents understandably fret when their kids avoid a lot of foods, won’t try new things and/or will only eat certain meals. They worry whether their child is getting enough vitamins and if their child’s fussiness is some kind of precursor to later more serious eating problems.
A new, small study in Eating Behaviors is the first to document how fussy eating develops in the same individuals over time into early adulthood and may provide a crumb (sorry) of comfort for anxious parents. It’s true that 60 per cent of fussy eating children in the study were also fussy eaters at age 23, but fussy eating young adults were no more likely to report signs of eating disorder than their non-fussy peers.
When young kids play together there’s often a lot of negotiation involved: “That’s my bunny”, “No, it’s mine”, “OK, you have it”. There’s talk of emotion: “Why are you crying?”, “You took my bunny”. And role-play: “You be baddie”, “No, I’m super-bunny”. Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising then that a recent meta-analysis found that young kids, aged 3 to 7, with more siblings have superior Theory of Mind (understanding other people’s mental states and perspectives – an important ability that benefits social and academic performance at school).
A new study in Journal of Cognition and Development asks whether the sibling advantage begins as early as toddlerhood, and whether it matters if a toddler’s sibling is older or younger. In fact, against expectations, toddlers with an older sibling showed no Theory of Mind advantage compared with only children, and toddlers with a younger sibling actually performed worse.
Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test of self-control is one of psychology’s iconic experimental set-ups. First conducted in the 1960s, Mischel told the kids he tested that if they managed to resist eating the marshmallow in front of them until he returned (usually about 15 minutes later), they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.
The children varied greatly in their powers of restraint and those who performed better displayed some cute distraction strategies, such as singing to themselves and covering their eyes. Perhaps most important, those kids who performed well at the test tended to do well in later life too, in terms of their health, education and career success. Given the huge impact this research has had, it’s amazing that it’s never been exported to a non-Western setting. Until now.
In a new paper in Child Development, Bettina Lamm and her colleagues have compared the performance of 125 4-year-olds from urban middle-class Germany with the performance of dozens of 4-year-olds from the Nso farming families of rural Cameroon. The Cameroonian kids aced the test, performing much better than their German peers. What’s more, their success seemed to be tied to the traditional, strict, hierarchical culture in which they’d been raised. The results challenge Western assumptions about what constitutes an ideal parenting style, and they provide another powerful demonstration of the urgent need for psychology to conduct more research outside of its usual Western focus.
Reading with a young child is important for their language development and early literacy skills. But does it matter if you read from an electronic book (e-book) or traditional print? As any parent knows, toddlers are generally keen on screens. So the finding, from a new study in Frontiers in Psychology, that very young children enjoy e-books more than print picture books, may not come as a huge surprise – but these additional findings might: both parents and toddlers behaved differently when reading electronic vs. print picture books. And the toddlers who read the e-books learned more.
According to a new paper in Developmental Psychology, children as young as 12-months-old can be taught to get better at focusing their attention – which may help with their acquisition of language, and other types of learning. This new study involved typical, healthy infants. But the findings could also be taken as support for the idea that interventions aimed at children showing problems with attention (who may go on to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, for example) can, and should, start at a very young age.
Many parents will attest to their young children’s remarkable knack for remembering rhymes, often claiming that their children’s abilities exceed their own. Can this really be true? In nearly all other contexts, adult memory is known to be superior to that of children, for obvious reasons, including the immaturity of children’s brain development and their lack of sophisticated mnemonic strategies.
A small study in Developmental Science has put pre-literate four-year-olds’ memory abilities to the test, finding that they outperformed their parents, and a comparison group of young adults, in their ability to recall a previously unfamiliar short rhyme: “The Radish-nosed King”.
“We argue that children are better than adults at recalling verse because they exercise the skill more in order to participate in the transmission of their culture through songs and stories, poems and taunts,” the researchers said.
There could be an Arctic blizzard blowing outside for all little Mary cares. The fact is, she’s hot from running around indoors, and no matter how much you try to explain to Mary that her future self – the one that’s about to go walking in the cold – would really appreciate that she put her coat on, Mary, like most kids aged under five, finds it very difficult to step outside of the present and consider her future needs.
While psychologists have already spent a lot of time demonstrating the limitations of young children’s ability to plan for the future, until now they’ve not looked much at whether it’s possible to target these “prospective abilities”. However, a new study in Developmental Psychology has done that, showing that a mere five-minute chat about their recent past or future selves seems to help preschoolers remember to do things in the future, and to “time travel” mentally, so that they make better decisions about their forthcoming needs.
Adolescents take more risks than adults: they are more likely to binge drink, have casual sex, commit crimes and have serious car accidents. In fact, adolescence is a paradox because it is a time of peak physical fitness, but also the time when people are most likely to be injured or killed in an accident. For this reason, it’s critical to understand what drives teenagers to take more risks. To date, many explanations of teenage risk taking have focused on the positive side of these behaviours: the rewarding “kick” that comes from taking a risk that ends well. Some studies have shown that teenagers experience more of this rewarding feeling, and this contributes to the increased risk taking seen at this age.
Fewer studies have considered how teenagers respond when risks turn out badly. This is important because all our previous experiences, both good and bad, affect our subsequent behaviour. If we make a risky decision like gambling money, and it pays off, it’s more likely we’ll decide to gamble again in the near future. Equally, if we take a gamble and it turns out badly, we’ll probably be a bit more reserved next time. But it turns out that some teenagers don’t respond like this: according to a new study in NeuroImage, some of them do not adjust their behavior so readily when things go wrong, and this may be linked to a distinct pattern of activation in their brains.