Category Archives: developmental psychology

Interviewing children without inducing the answers

When we interview children for research purposes we usually face two typical dangers:

–          Suggestibility: sometimes researchers use biased questions that contaminate children’s beliefs or memories. Sometimes children just want to give interviewers the reply they feel is expected or “socially desirable”. It’s easy to induce a given response in a 4- or 5-year-old, and if this happens… then research results are worthless.

–          Unreliable memories: Not only are young children very suggestible, they are also not reliable when recalling events that just took place. Thus, if we show them a video clip and then ask them some questions about it, it’s important that we make sure that children understood what they saw and can retain the events in their memory.

 

To sum up: it is essential, when we are designing our research interviews, to avoid any tricky questions or stimuli that might interfere with children’s spontaneous thinking (the latter being what we are interested in). I’ve just read three papers that supply interesting and relevant findings we should keep in mind when designing appropriate research interviews with young children.

1) Roebers & Schneider (2005) found that the better the child’s language abilities the less suggestible the child is. Language development seems to be key (especially language fluency and comprehension) rather than other general domain variables such as executive function or working memory. Investigative interviews are language dependent; language abilities play a major role for explaining differences in suggestibility. This finding, however, comes with an interesting caveat: it is also easier to purposely disrupt children’s memories when they have good language skills. The reason for this is that children with better language skills process (false) verbal information provided by the researchers more efficiently, and later they have trouble distinguishing between original and suggested information. Individuals with better language skills encode, store, and thus remember the contents of the misleading questions better than do individuals with poorer language skills. Language can work either way.

2) Peterson, Dowden, & Tobin (1999) investigated the influence of question format on 3 to 5 year old children. They found that when researchers frame their questions with a yes/no format (e.g., “did the woman take the man’s hat?”) many preschoolers tend to reply “yes”. This is so even in cases when they don’t know the answer or when they have been presented information that requires a “no” answer. By way of contrast, when children are asked the equivalent wh- question (e.g., “what did the woman take?”) children give more accurate answers and the percentage of children who answer “I don’t know” increases. The authors conclude that there are dangers inherent in yes-no questions: answers may be influenced by response biases or other factors besides how veridical the underlying proposition is. Children seldom say “I don’t know” when they are uncertain or do not know the correct answer. Specific wh- questions seem to be less problematic.

3) Mellor & Moore (2014) investigated elementary school children’s ability to use Likert scales during research interviews. In my opinion, their work has several important methodological flaws. Mainly, the questions are too complicated and children’s failures to use the scales adequately reflects, in my opinion, more the inherent difficulty of the problems posed to children rather than the (un-)reliability of Likert scales. There are a few interesting comments in the paper, anyhow: a) children tend to respond to Likert scales with a left-bias (that is, they seem to pick the first item in the scale more often than the rest); b)  5-point scales yield similar results to 3-point scales (they don’t seem more difficult to understand for elementary school children); c) word-scales (eg: very good-kind of good-more or less-kind of bad-very bad) produce more reliable results than number scales (5-4-3-2-1).

Altogether, three interesting and relevant papers. I’ll keep these findings in mind when designing my own research interview.

Mellor, D., & Moore, K. A. (2014). The use of likert scales with children. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 39(3), 369–379.

Peterson, C., Dowden, C., & Tobin, J. (1999). Interviewing preschoolers: Comparisons of yes/no and wh- questions. Law and Human Behavior, 23(5), 539–555.

Roebers, C. M., & Schneider, W. (2005). Individual differences in young children’s suggestibility: Relations to event memory, language abilities, working memory, and executive functioning. Cognitive Development, 20(3), 427–447.

 

Summary of my presentation at the fairness conference

I like the summary Erin Robbins and Philippe Rochat wrote for my presentation at the Fairness Conference (Emory University, 2012). It really captures the spirit of what I was trying to convey. It goes as follows:

Gustavo Faigenbaum from the University Autonoma de Entre Rios in Argentina (“Three Dimensions of Fairness”), in contrast to the preceding two evolutionary perspectives, argues that in understanding fairness, individual morality has been overrated and institutions underrated. To this end, Faigenbaum advances several claims that draw from both psychological and philosophical theories. First, he argues that institutional experience shapes concepts of fairness. This is evident in children’s interactions in schoolyards, where they engage in associative reciprocity (sharing with others to build alliances and demonstrate social affinities) rather than strict reciprocity. At the level of adult behavior, this associative reciprocity is also evident in gift-giving rituals. Second, Faigenbaum argues that possession and ownership are the most important institutions in the development of fairness reasoning because they involve abstraction and are the first step in the development of a deontological perspective.

Concepts of morality do not need to be evoked; he argues that research on children’s protests of ownership violations reflect an emphasis on conventional rather than moral rules. Faigenbaum concludes by arguing that participation in rule-governed activities is sufficient to create mutual understandings about what constitutes fair exchange (per philosopher John Searle’s “X counts as Y” rule). Developmental research demonstrates that fairness is an autonomous domain of experience that is fundamentally tied to institutions and cannot be reduced to moral reasoning proper.

The complete presentation is available at youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZcLicg_Dw8) yet the sound is terrible and it’s practically impossible to listen to.

Alison Gopnik as a child

Shamelessly, Gopnik starts her seminal article on The Scientist as Child (Gopnik, 1996) by claiming that “recently, cognitive and developmental psychologists have invoked the analogy of science itself” (p. 485). Recently! That analogy is at the core of the Piagetian enterprise. Indeed, Piaget founded the field of cognitive development some 80 years ago by appealing to that very analogy, i.e., by claiming that the fields of epistemology (or philosophy of science) and developmental psychology can illuminate each other because there are functional similarities between the processes of knowledge acquisition in children and in scientists. The insight that the scientific investigation of children’s cognitive development sheds light on the history of science and vice versa is 100% Piagetian. Yet Gopnik discusses it as if it were a new idea.

Gopnik knows that Piaget already said this. In other writings she’s honest enough to admit she knows about Piaget’s systematic comparison between children and scientists, although she also claims that she means it in a different way; i.e., she affirms that the relationships she establishes between the fields of child psychology and epistemology are not the same as in Piaget’s. Yet in this particular paper (Gopnik, 1996) and in many other places (most notably, her lectures to undergraduates, of which I will speak some day) she pretends that it’s she and her theory-theory colleagues who have coined this famous analogy. In this particular article, Piaget’s name is not even mentioned.

There are many other ideas that are originally Piagetian and for which the Swiss researcher gets no credit at all. For example: that theory change is a process that goes through different stages: disregard or denial of uncomfortable evidence, compromise solutions, generalized crisis and substitution by a new theory. And, of course, the basic contention that children have theories in a sense comparable to scientists. She also claims: “Theory change proceeds more uniformly and quickly in children than in scientists, and so is considerably easier to observe, and we can even experimentally determine what kinds of evidence lead to change. In children, we may actually be able to see “the logic of discovery” in action” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 509). This is Piaget talking! Yet she presents these ideas as if they were completely her own.

This is not my main criticism of Gopnik’s work, of course. The central problem, in my opinion, is the way she understands science (as result of a mere ability to investigate and “find truths” rather than as a normative practice). I’ll talk about it in a different post.

Gopnik, A. (1996). The scientist as child. Philosophy of Science, 63, 485–514. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/188064

Clarification on the purpose of my planned experiment on “practical math”

What follows is the response to some questions my friends Philippe and Samar raised about the experiment I describe here (previous post).

1) How is the normative context you are proposing different from a school math context?

I try to embed math problems in narratives that remind children of everyday, familiar situations that involve observance or transgressions of exchange and distribution rules. Such narratives, I believe, will awaken children’s sense of justice and motivate them to balance a situation that they see as unbalanced or unfair (“A gave a present to B but B didn’t make a matching present to A”, “A stole something from B”, etc.) Such narrative contexts should remind children about the institutions and rules or reciprocity that govern exchange and distribution. So, this is very different from the formal, instructional school context.

I’m not primarily focused on the educational applications. My questions are theoretical. I’m interested in mapping the social aspects of human cognition. If my work gets the desired results, then the educational applications might follow… but that’s not a primary goal for me. The experiment aims at proving a theoretical point.

2)  Do you think that the social/normative context of math problems would boost children numerical competence?

Yes, my hypothesis is that the social-normative context of these math problems will probably improve children numerical competence. But I would not expect any deep or long term effects from just one session. My idea is as follows: if we can use this one session to show just a local effect of the narrative context on how children construe and solve these problems, this is relevant enough. This would prove that social meanings are transferred to the mathematical domain and have an impact on children’s performance. I think that proving such local effect is much simpler than doing a longitudinal study (which might be a second step in the research). I also proposed to “do some standardized numeracy tests (perhaps those used by Opfer & Siegler, Dehaene, Piagetian conservation tests, etc.) right after the main task in order to evaluate if each of these normative contexts has “sensitized” the child to quantities in a special way.” In other words, we would not be testing for any lasting effects, but we would test numerical competence and/or quantity conservation right after the main experiment, to see whether this “sensibility” to number gets transferred to different problems. So this would only test for immediate effects, but we are interested in the child’s performance in a second, apparently unrelated problem, in the domain of math, to see if there is a “spill-over” from one situation to the other.

3) Why should normative and social context as provided in the narrative improve children’s performance?

Math problems that involve some kind of “equalization” between different parties are social in nature. This type of math was created historically to deal with such social problems (barter and purchase, paying back, getting even, managing debt). The history of math seems to go hand in hand with the history of human exchange and distribution systems. For example, the popularization of coins and the establishment of a class of merchants seems to happen at the same time as (and probably facilitate) the emergence of formal arithmetic. Calculus (developed simultaneously by Newton and Leibniz) is invented at a time when the first stock exchanges are being created.

We are not merely providing children with a social metaphor in this experiment, we are re-embedding math problems in their original social context. It’s the meaningfulness of the situation that should impact on children’s performance. This is the idea I want to test.

4) Where’s the novelty of your approach? 

Most current researchers (Dehaene, Opher, Siegler, Spelke, Lourenco, among many others) are interested in the innate, Approximate Number System (ANS) that humans share with other animals. Although there are differences among authors in the details, there is consensus that such a system is a pre-condition for the development of symbolic number and arithmetic (which are unique to humans). These authors show that symbolic number builds upon such innate capacity but they don’t provide good explanations about how we go beyond the ANS and up to human math. They mention “culture” but they treat culture as a mere collection of arbitrary conventions, technologies and techniques. In the case of number, culture is seen as providing a more or less fast and effective set of arbitrary procedures to perform calculations.

So, again, my immediate aim is not so much to discover the best strategy for training kids or to improve academic performance in the long term, but to prove a theoretical point about the social nature of math.

Thinking about an experiment on “practical math” in normative contexts

I am trying to think about an experimental situation that would allow me to test how normative-institutional contexts impact on children quantitative reasoning. Ideally, it has to be an easy experimental task that can be tested quickly with children from different cultures. What follows is a half-baked draft. Your feedback and criticism is most welcome.

So this is the idea… Children (ages 4 to 7) are interviewed individually. During the interview, they are shown a series of very short puppet plays. After each play children are questioned about the best way to solve a problem that arose in the play. Children are required to offer quantitative answers to such problems; for example, “how much money does character A have to pay character B to get even?” or “How many blocks does character A need to add in order to complete the building?”, etc.  The narratives are different in nature. Some narratives provide a social and normative context to the problem, in the sense that they highlight certain social rules children need to take into account in order to respond appropriately to the situation. Other narratives, by way of contrast, highlight “technical” or “engineering” problems, and involve means-ends reasoning. They problems they involve are similar to the normative problems in their mathematical content, yet the narrative context is markedly different.

Examples:

A1: “Negative reciprocity and reparation”. Character A has a bag with three candy bars. Character A shows the bag to character B and tells her that she loves candy bars and that she plans to eat them with her friends the next day. Character A goes to sleep. Character B steals the bars and eats them. Character A wakes up and finds character B stole the candy, and asks character B to return them. Character B says she doesn’t have the candy anymore but that she can offer character A some money to make up for the stolen candy. She opens a purse and drops some coins and bills on the table. The child is asked to choose the coins and bills character B has to hand over to character A in order to get even. They child is questioned about how she made that decision; and how she calculated how many bills and coins that character B must give character A.

A2: “Destruction and reconstruction”. The child is shown a tower formed by six big blocks. The child is told that a powerful storm and strong winds hit the building during the night and broke the three upper stories of the building. She’s then given a number of smaller blocks of different sizes and is asked to rebuild the tower so that it is as high as it was before the storm. The child is questioned the criteria she used to select the blocks and to decide how many blocks to use.

B1. “Positive reciprocity”. Character A visits character B and shows up with a present: a stack of stickers or trading cards. Each character returns to her own home. Then character B says that character A was really nice and that she would also like to give her a present to “get even”. The child is asked to help character B prepare her present. She is shown a cup and a collection of marbles and is told to fill the cup up until there are enough for A’s present. The child is also asked about how she decided how many marbles to give; i.e. to justify her decision.

B2. “Bridging the gap”. The child is shown a model of a river. On the river there is half bridge built with legos. The bridge starts on one shore and goes only half-way over the river. The child is asked to pick the lego pieces that she would need to build the other half of the bridge. The set of lego pieces the child can choose from have a different size than the ones used to build the first half of the bridge.

All four situations involve some kind of addition and subtraction of different units; they also involve compensating different dimensions of problems (values of the goods exchanged, sizes of different objects, etc.) A1 and B1 are “social” and “normative”: they involve the concept of justice; A2 and B2 are “technical”: they involve a kind of means-ends reasoning.

One possibility is to give situations A1-B1 to one group and A2-B2 to a different group. One could then compare the reasoning and argumentation of children who are given a “normative” vis- à-vis a “technical” narrative. To this end, one might use the theory of argumentation and other tools of discourse analysis. One could also do some standardized numeracy tests (perhaps those used by Opfer & Siegler, Dehaene, Piagetian conservation tests, etc.) after the main tasks in order to evaluate if each of these normative contexts has “sensitized” the child to quantities in a special way; i.e. if the children who just completed the “technical” problem perform better or worse than the children who did the “social-normative” problem.

Another possibility is to give the same children all four situations so as to compare the features of quantitative thinking in technical vs. normative contexts in the same children.

Still thinking…

“Let’s trade” and “my turn”

My son L. is 3y 1m old. He’s started recently to use the expression “let’s trade” (“te cambio”). That is: he produces speech acts aimed at swapping objects with another person. For instance, he gives away his glass of milk in order to obtain a yoghurt cup I have. We exchange goods. He seems to understand that the proto- contract we thus celebrate involves the mutual surrender and handing over of possessions. The rules of reciprocity are no doubt regulating this interaction. Which doesn’t mean that the child can understand conceptually, let alone articulate, such rules.

In addition, when playing with other children, L. knows how to claim his turn to use a toy (shouts “¡Turno mío!”). He also uses this expression in other contexts; for instance, to demand his turn to drink mate (in a mate round shared with adults). Again: his understanding of the reciprocity rules involved is perhaps incipient. But L. is clearly starting to master the rhetorical forms that allow efficient access to the desired objects.

My hypothesis: the child first masters the rhetorical forms, and only later the conceptual content. Piaget’s prise de conscience (the conceptual, explicit insight) is the final product of a process that starts with immediate, un-reflected action. The process goes from the periphery of action to the center of explicit, conceptual thinking. Differently from Piaget, however, in the periphery I do not see the actions of an organism but the utterances of a retor.

Piaget and the logic of action

I’m reading Prof. Castorina’s lectures on Genetic Epistemology. They’re quite good.

One of the points he explains very clearly is that, for Jean Piaget, logic emerges out of the individual’s coordination of actions (or action schemata). Piaget considers that one of the basic features of all living forms is their tendency to self-organize. He thought that this principle or “functional invariant” applied to all levels of development, from basic organic forms to complex human behavior. It is an essential part of self-preservation that organisms produce complex and organized structures and that they maintain such organization actively throughout time in order to survive. Successful self-organization is thus the counter-part of successful adaptation; they are parallel processes, two sides of the same coin.

I buy it up to that point. But Piaget extends this biological framework further: intelligent life is manifestation of life as such; the same laws that apply to living forms also apply to intelligence and to cognitive development. Logic derives from action, and action is understood in biological terms. Logic reflects the inner organization of action. For example, the organized actions of babies that move, order and categorize objects are at the root of the (developmentally later) mental operations of classification, seriation, number, etc. The very logical principle of “conservation,” so central to Piaget’s theory, derives from the organism’s tendency to self-organize and self-preserve.

It is as if a logical instinct were inherent to human action. For Piaget, there’s a continuum that goes from biology, through action, up to logic and scientific knowledge.

In my opinion, Piaget underestimates the discontinuities between animal cognition and human knowledge. I consider the latter as an institutional phenomenon (I try to explain in other places). As I see it, the deontological nature of human knowledge is not reducible to biological action.

 

Ritualized exchanges at three years of age

My son L. is taking a bath. He’s 3 years – 1 month. After playing around in the water for a while, he says “I’m a fish”. Then looks at me and says: “I am a penguin.” I reply: “Hello, penguin”. He: “Nice to meet you”. Then he adds: “I pay” (extends his hand as if giving me money). I extend my hand and say: “Here is your change.” Then he says: “Here’s a gift” (and again extends his hand). So I say, “Oh, what is it?” He answers: “A perfume”. He then gives me several more presents, sometimes saying that the gift is “a perfume”, and at other times saying it’s “a surprise”.

I find this sequence very interesting. Our interaction comprises a continuous series of conventional behaviors that are typically used to start social exchanges and to keep them alive. So we go from “greetings” to “payment,” and then to “gift-giving”. Children, of course, do not understand payments as a way to deliver a certain amount of monetary value in the context of a sale or some other economic contract. Rather, they ​see payment as a ritualized exchange, in that sense similar to gift-giving or greeting rituals (as we know from the research in the area of children’s economic notions, such as Berti and Bombi’s, Delval’s, Jahoda’s and Danziger’s among many others). All the actions performed by Leon are instances of ritual exchanges, realized with a purely associative purpose, that is: he interacts in order to keep me engaged in interaction.

Misunderstanding Piaget

Re-reading Piaget and García’s Psychogenesis and the History of Science (Piaget & Garcia, 1988). I like the way they explain the Piagetian project in the introduction.

It is clear to me that many of Piaget’s critics misunderstand the object of study of genetic psychology (either purposely or by ignorance).They criticize Piaget as if he was talking about the child as a concrete, integral individual (involving emotional, biological, socio-cultural and cognitive aspects); that is, as if Piaget were talking about the same child that is studied by developmental psychology.

Yet Piaget makes it very clear that it is not such a concrete child he’s studying but, rather, he’s concerned with an abstraction: the epistemic subject, i.e., the child as embarked on the construction of justifiable, i.e., normative knowledge; the “child as scientist.” Thus in section 2 of the Introduction Piaget and García make it clear that they are not concerned with the psychophysiology of human behavior (actions as material events, consciousness, memory, mental images, etc.) Rather they’re only interested in the child’s construction of cognitive instruments insofar as they are (or become) normative, that is, insofar as they come to be organized according to norms that the individual either gives herself or accepts from others during the processes of knowledge acquisition. If A. Gopnik (to give just one example, among many possible others, of an author that puts forward a distorted version of Piaget’s theory, and keeps defeating the strawman over and over again) understood this distinction, half of her criticisms of Piaget would instantly become pointless.

Piaget, J., & Garcia, R. (1988). Psychogenesis and the History of Science. New York: Columbia University Press.