Research Spotlight: Psych project is nothing more than child’s play

We were all kids once, but few of us can remember the experience of childhood. When I think back on what it was like to be a baby – what I thought and felt – I can’t remember any of it.

Stephanie Ann Bush and her daughter, six-month-old Kyleigh, engage in face-to-face play while their heart rates are recorded.

There’s a large part of my early life that I simply cannot account for. Luckily, there are researchers like Professor of Psychology Amie Hane and Senior Lecturer in Psychology Susan Engel, who are working diligently to try to recover information about what these early years of our lives are like.

“There’s always a sense of mystery when you’re doing psychological research, but there’s an extra mystery with kids. They’re both like us and not like us, exotic yet familiar,” Engel said. “That’s tantalizing as a researcher. It’s worth finding out what they’re really thinking, what their world is like as they’re developing, because we were all there once.” Engel has extensively researched children’s storytelling, curiosity and what teaching methods best encourage kids to explore the world around them. Her research has been conducted in many different settings – everywhere from the lab to the playground.

When Engel was researching how children tell stories, she found that the child’s audience drastically changed the kind of story they told. “What they’ll say to a stranger is different than what they’ll say to someone they know well,” she said. “I think of it as the Jane Goodall challenge of psychology – for some kinds of data, you actually have to go out to the jungle, to their natural environment, to understand what they do.”  For other kinds of research, though, the lab is the ideal setting.

When Engel was researching children’s curiosity, one experiment she did involved filming a staged scenario in the lab, where a researcher had some materials to set up. Sometimes the researcher would tinker with the materials and other times the researcher would just set them out. “We then watched what the kids would do with the materials after the grown-up left the room,” Engel explained. “We found that when my researcher had tinkered with the materials, the kids were much more interested in them. This led us to make a careful conclusion: Kids who see a grown-up act curious are themselves more curious.”

Hane is also investigating what goes on in children’s minds. She studies negative reactivity and behavioral inhibition (both potential precursors to shyness) in children and how their relationship to their caregivers can alter their personality profile. “Unfortunately, infants can’t tell us how they’re feeling directly,” Hane said. “They can’t fill out a questionnaire or take a cognitive intelligence test. In order to figure out what’s going on in their minds, we use different methodologies, like habituation or preferential looking.”

Habituation involves presenting a baby with a stimulus enough times that they get bored with it. Then the stimulus is changed, and if they baby becomes interested again, it suggests that the baby was able to detect the difference between the two stimuli. Preferential looking involves what stimuli babies prefer to stare at, which is indicated by how they orient their faces and how long they look. “For example, when presented with an image of their mother and an image of a researcher, babies will prefer the image of their mother,” Hane said. “Even though they can’t tell us directly what they’re thinking, we can infer quite a lot about how babies perceive the world. Babies clearly recognize a difference between their mothers and strangers, for example.”

A third method of studying babies is to measure their physiological reactions to different situations – for example, studying heart rate, cortisol levels or electrical activity in the brain.  In one of her experiments, Hane wanted to see how babies responded to stressors in their environment, so she measured babies’ heart rates when their mothers ignored them for two minutes. The mothers in the study were instructed to leave their faces blank and to stare above their child’s head. “Some babies were able to cope better than others,” she said. “They distracted themselves, playing with the straps of their shoes for example. Their heart rates increased, but not drastically. Other babies coped less well and their heart rates skyrocketed. They got fussy earlier.”

Hane has found that how babies are able to respond socially and emotionally is not forever hardwired in the brain because the brain is plastic – it responds to its environment. Thus, even if a child is born showing negative reactivity to stimuli, a positive relationship with its caregiver can change how it reacts to stress. They won’t necessarily turn out to be a shy child. “Though we can learn quite a lot about what children are like from our studies, we have to remember that there’s more discontinuity than continuity – children change over time,” she said. “Their personalities are not set in stone.”