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Developmental psychology

Me and the others

München, 06/09/2014

Markus Paulus, Professor of Developmental Psychology at LMU, studies how social learning turns helpless babies into adept schoolchildren who understand how they and others tick. His work illuminates how the emotional, cognitive and social skills we pick up during early childhood affect how we live out our lives. Take self-restraint, for instance.

Source: S. Kobold /

“In this bag I have a present for you. I have to go out for moment, but I’ll give it to you when I come back,” says the experimenter to the 2½-year-old, and leaves the bag on the table. A camera records what happens next: Will she take a quick look? Will she take the gift from the bag? Or is she have the willpower to wait?

This experiment is a variant of the so-called marshmallow test designed by the American psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s, which has become a standard paradigm in developmental psychology. Mischel gave each child a marshmallow and promised them a second one if they managed not to eat the first while he was out of the room. Videos on YouTube illustrate how children from all over the world react to the challenge of deferring the gratification of their wish to eat the sweet. Some avert their eyes, some start singing. Others stare at the sweet, pick it up and sniff it, or take a tiny bite. And then there are those who have crammed it into their mouths before the experimenter has got to the door.

The paradigm is used to test the strength of a child’s self-restraint. As it turns out, the test not only provides insights into temperament and developmental state but also gives a glimpse of the child’s future. “Children who can restrain themselves at this age – who do not immediately run to the table, or at most take a peek into the bag – are more likely to share with others at the age of 5,” says Paulus.

This developmental link between learned self-restraint and willingness to share is one of the findings that have emerged from a longitudinal study carried out by Markus Paulus and his colleagues at the Child Development Lab in the Faculty of Psychology and Education at LMU. Beate Sodian, who holds the Chair of Developmental Psychology, began the study in 2006 with a cohort of 6-month-old children. Since then, these kids have taken part in regular laboratory tests, which have helped experimenters to comprehend how children experience the world around them and how their perceptions, modes of thought and capacity for learning develop and change as they interact with others. Separate studies have also been done with children of 10 months and more. In addition to self-restraint, the researchers have focused on the emergence of prosocial behaviors, such as a readiness to help, comfort or share with others. These projects address a much debated question in developmental psychology: How much of our behavior is prenatally programmed and how much is learned in our first postnatal weeks, months and years?

What will she reach for?
One of the first tests children undergo at the Lab probes their ability to understand intentionality. “Children develop an awareness of the intentions of others when they grasp that actions are goal-directed,” says Markus Paulus. The first signs of this ability emerge at around 6 months. In the test, babies observe – either on a TV monitor or as a puppet show – how an adult reaches for an object, and their eye movements and gaze times are recorded by a video camera. With this eye-tracking method, one can determine how the child reacts when the hand reaches for a previously untouched object. If they gaze for longer when the person picks up a new object, this argues that they recognize that object as the goal of the action.

Individuals differ in how well they can interpret the actions and intentions of others at this early age, and one LMU study has shown that this partly depends on the quality of the infant’s relationship with its mother. “Infants whose mothers are emotionally accessible to them and react promptly to their signals are better able to judge the intentions of others,” says Paulus, “and it is fascinating to see how their early experiences influence social perceptions and various other aspects of their subsequent development.”

The researchers have also used electroencephalography (EEG) to probe the links between diverse features of early child development, as it has long been recognized that asymmetries in levels of electrical activity favoring the right and left frontal areas of the brain are correlated with positive and negative emotions, respectively, and with approach/withdrawal behavior. Paulus first used this tool on 14-month-old subjects. When these children were 2 years old, the LMU team measured their levels of empathy by recording their reactions to a character who pretended to be in pain.

The results showed that the children who exhibited a greater degree of empathy were those who had displayed a higher level of activation of the right frontal cortex in the earlier experiment. “The interesting thing is that at 14 months, when they underwent EEG, children show no signs of empathy. Children of that age themselves feel pain when another shows signs of distress, but they run to their mothers for consolation. Only after around 18 months are they able to attribute pain to someone else. In other words, at an age at which children are unable to comfort others, we discovered a pattern of electrophysiological activity that predicts whether or not they will subsequently console others when they are in pain.” In a further study, Paulus and his colleagues are now evaluating the impact of the mother-child interaction on the degree to which approach/withdrawal behavior is detectable at the age of 14 months. “We have already found that withdrawal predominates in children of depressive mothers,” says Paulus.

The researchers also plan to investigate whether and how willingness to share with others is affected by the expectations of others and at what age this latter factor comes into play. The capacity to attribute mental states to another person is seen by psychologists as reflecting the emergence of a “theory of mind”. The classical test of whether a subject has developed a theory of mind is the so-called Sally-Anne test, which asks children to consider whether or not Sally will be able to find the marble that Anne hid in a different location while Sally was out of the room. Children between the ages of 4 and 5 can predict where Sally will look first (in the place where the marble was hidden when she left the room). In order to do so, they must have reasoned that Sally’s state of knowledge differs from their own.

Acquisition of a theory of mind appears to be closely linked to the development of a model of one’s own cognitive processes, which is referred to as metacognition. “Children who pass the Sally-Anne test at the age of 4 to 5 are also more likely to be able to perform other tasks that require metacognition. This result argues that children first develop the ability to reconstruct the mental states of others and then apply this skill to their own thought processes,” says Paulus. “In other words, understanding oneself requires the ability to understand others.”

The use of the longitudinal study design which allows diverse aspects of child development to be investigated over the course of several years has given the Munich researchers unprecedented insight into human developmental psychology. The range of experiments carried out on the same study cohort at different ages has enabled them not only to follow how social skills develop but has also revealed unexpected links between the processes involved in their acquisition.

“Self-restraint – the ability to regulate and cope with one’s own negative emotions – and an early realization that actions are motivated by intentions both play an important role in the early development of prosocial behaviors,” says Paulus, and mentions studies that have demonstrated that children who learn self-control at an early age tend to more successful, both professionally and socially, as young adults. “That has a lot to do with the fact that they are able to distance themselves from their own desires and let others have a greater say in decisions.”

When the participants in the longitudinal study arrive in the Lab for the next test they will be 8 years old. Paulus and his colleagues will then be able to assess how the members of the cohort have managed the transition to formal schooling, to evaluate their academic performance and their behavior in class, and determine how these correlate with the course of emotional and cognitive development. Their findings may suggest ways of more effectively helping children to learn.

When both parents are in agreement
The experiments performed in the Child Development Lab emphasize the importance of the home, and the attitudes and responses of parents, in child development. The impact of parental approaches to child-rearing is again confirmed by a study that has just been completed. In this project, Paulus evaluated differences in styles of parenting, while the social behavior of their 3- to 5-year-old offspring was independently assessed by their teachers in kindergarten. The study found that the children’s social behavior reflected the degree of consistency between the nurturing styles adopted by their respective parents: Children of parents who responded similarly to a corresponding questionnaire were less likely to exhibit problematical behavior in school.

However, Paulus cautions against overenthusiasm on the part of demanding parents: “In the vast majority of cases, parents intuitively choose the right approach to child-rearing. Early intervention makes sense in areas in which a child is at risk of being left behind. That does not imply that every child should receive special early training, which often means exerting pressure. Parents who demand too much create a climate of expectation and can no longer interact naturally with their children. This approach rarely works. Children are not infinitely malleable.

Attentive parents develop a feel for how their children’s actions and reactions come to reflect their own behavior. The generosity shown by parents, their readiness to help others, and how they control their own impulses – all this affects how children behave in comparable situations, and how they will perform on the marshmallow test and its many variants. “Self-control is a component of one’s temperament, but it is greatly influenced by social learning,” says Paulus. Children may shut their eyes when confronted with a tempting sweet, avert their gaze from it, touch it, play with it or smell it. But all these reactions reveal the strategies that they have learned by observing the behavior of their parents and other family members. Do they put the unfinished bar of chocolate back in the cupboard or leave it on the table until it has been eaten up? Do they interrupt an ongoing task as soon as an opportunity to take a break presents itself? “How parents deal with such situations has a significant impact on whether or not their children learn the art of self-restraint,” says Paulus. Most of what we learn about the world around us we learn in social settings. Nicola Holzapfel / Translation: Paul Hardy

Prof. Dr. Markus Paulus became Professor of Developmental and Educational Psychology of Early Childhood at LMU in 2013. Born in 1980, he studied at the universities in Eichstätt and Oulu (Finland). He obtained his PhD at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour at Radboud University in Nijmegen (Netherlands) and worked in the Early Social Development Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax (Canada) before moving to Munich. He was awarded ERC Starting Grant in 2015.