Social influences on young children's developing inhibitory control abilities
MetadataShow full item record
The goal of this dissertation was to experimentally examine two different means through which social factors can influence children’s inhibitory control abilities: 1) a top down approach, through modeling of self-control skills, and 2) a bottom up approach via increased arousal due to their mere presence in the child’s environment. To the best of my knowledge, little research has examined children’s imitative abilities in the context of learning behavioral inhibition strategies, nor the influence of minimal social presence in the form of a mere image of eyes on children’s cognitive inhibition performance. In Chapters 2 and 3, I systematically explored variables that may affect children’s acquisition of self-control strategies from adults in a delay-of-gratification task. In Study 1, I explored the effect of adult’s verbal and behavioral information on preschool-aged children’s imitation of self-regulatory strategies with a particular interest in the cases when the verbal and behavioral information conflict. Children performed a delay-of-gratification task after observing an adult perform the same task. Across four between-subjects conditions, the model either did or did not state her intention to complete the task, modeled the strategies, and then either did or did not complete the task successfully. Children who observed the model successfully complete the task were more likely to imitate the strategies and successfully wait when they performed the same task, as well as in a novel self-control task, irrespective of the model’s communicated intent. In addition to examining the role of the information provided by an adult model, I investigated the role of model characteristics. In Study 2, using the same paradigm as in the first study, I explored whether 4- to 5-year-old children demonstrated a preference to imitate self control strategies from a racially ingroup versus a racially outgroup adult. Results revealed an absence of significant racial group preference in a sample of children of minority background (Chinese American), but significant racial group preferences among Caucasian children. Caucasian children were significantly more likely to imitate modeled strategies and to successfully wait when they observed an adult who was a racial ingroup member versus a racial outgroup member (East Asian). These findings were even more robust for the 5-year-old children, suggesting that racial group preferences may develop with age. The final two studies presented in Chapter 4 demonstrate that social factors can also influence inhibitory control abilities from a bottom up approach. In Study 3a, children either performed a computerized Flanker task in the presence of a picture of (angry) eyes (minimal social presence) or in the presence of a picture of flowers (non-social presence). While there was no significant difference in performance between the two conditions for children with less developed theory of mind, participants with more developed theory of mind demonstrated facilitated performance in the social presence condition. In Study 3b, I further explored the effect of minimal social presence on inhibitory control performance by adding a third condition, a picture of happy eyes. The facilitative effect was not found in the happy eyes condition, which may suggest that increase in arousal may have been a mechanism by which the social stimulus affected performance. Taken together, the findings from these studies identify social variables and conditions, both from a top down as well as from a bottom up approach, that affect children’s inhibitory control. This has important implications on how we can optimize teaching of self-control strategies in order to promote development of children’s behavioral inhibition, as well as on how we understand the implicit role of social context, even seemingly minimal social stimuli, that can facilitate children’s cognitive inhibition.