Social Cognition In Childhood Research Paper

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‘Social cognition’ refers in very general terms to thinking about people, knowledge of people, and the social world, as well as to social processes in cognitive development. That is, it is a term that is used to refer both to the nature or content of children’s understanding of others and themselves, and to theories and explanations of how social experiences are involved in the development of understanding more broadly considered—the role of social factors in cognitive growth. The study of social cognition then is at the border of cognitive and social developmental psychology (Butterworth 1982). It brings together very different theories of the growth of knowledge, and is a growing point for new ideas on the nature of children’s understanding of mind and emotion, and on the relation of this understanding to children’s prosocial and moral development, and their social relationships.



1. Changes In Ideas On Social Cognition

Five themes in the changing ideas on the development of social cognition over recent decades are evident. One concerns the question of how social experiences are implicated in sociocognitive development, in terms of the processes by which cognitive change takes place. The second concerns ideas and evidence on the nature of children’s understanding of emotion, mind, intention, and the connections between these inner states and people’s actions—a domain which has come to dominate cognitive developmental research since the early 1990s. The third theme is the rapidly growing interest in individual differences in social understanding, and the implications of these differences for a wide range of children’s outcomes. The fourth is the role of social experiences in contributing to these individual differences in children’s social understanding. The fifth is the recent interest in bridging the gap between the study of cognitive and of social development through a focus on how cognitive development is implicated in social relationships, moral and prosocial development. These themes will be considered in turn.

1.1 Individual And Social Approaches To Cognitive Development

Piaget’s ideas on cognitive development centered on both the process of understanding, and on the nature of knowledge, and a key notion was that the individual child actively constructs knowledge by selecting and interpreting information in the environment. The processes he proposed for the growth of intelligence were seen as applying to both the inanimate and the social world. His investigations of children’s understanding of the mind began in the 1920s (e.g., Piaget 1926); after these first books he focused chiefly upon children’s growing knowledge of the physical world, and the development of logicomathematical thought. The emergence of social knowledge was not seen as essentially different from other forms of knowledge, though social interactions (especially those with peers) were seen as contributing to children’s growing understanding (see Sect. 1.4 below).

In contrast to Piaget’s focus on the individual actively constructing knowledge as an individual, there is a strong tradition within psychology that emphasizes the social nature of cognitive processes, beginning as early as the 1890s with Baldwin’s seminal writings (e.g., Baldwin 1895). In Russia, Vygotsky argued that cognitive growth was socially determined—that cognitive development proceeded from the social plane to the individual (see Wertsch 1985). He famously proposed that new cognitive abilities were first seen when a child was interacting with another person, and only later became internalized. Individual development was, he argued, embedded in a social context. Vygotsky emphasized the difference between a child’s level of potential ability, and his or her actual ability.

The difference between these two levels he termed the ‘zone of proximal development’—abilities that were just beyond what a child could achieve alone, but was able to achieve when interacting with a cooperative, supportive other person (adult or peer). Thus to Vygotsky, the scaffolding or facilitation provided in social interaction (especially interaction between adult and child, or expert and novice) was key for the development of new abilities. Within this broad theoretical framework, researchers have examined the significance of ‘scaffolding’ and facilitation in cognitive performance, and the ‘expert–novice’ interaction (Rogoff 1990). A whole new view of cognitive growth in infancy has flourished, in which the context in which new abilities are fostered is seen as essentially social (Hala 1997). So for example, recent research on the development of understanding of emotion takes off from Darwin’s observations of the development of emotions (which highlight the biological foundation and function of emotional expression) to emphasize the sociocultural contributions to the development of both expression and understanding of emotions.

The idea that cognitive growth takes place through social interaction has also been experimentally investigated within a different research tradition, that of Doise and his colleagues in Geneva, with a series of studies that began in the 1970s (e.g., Doise and Mugny 1984). Rather than emphasizing scaffolding and supportive cooperation, they argued that cognitive conflict between individuals who may view a problem differently, or have different levels of ability can stimulate cognitive development.

These theoretical positions have all been concerned with the normative processes by which cognitive changes take place, rather than with the role of social experiences as contributors to individual differences in social cognition; this is considered in Sect. 1.4 below.

1.2 The Nature Of Children’s Developing Social Understanding

After Piaget’s seminal work in the 1920s, it was not until the mid-1980s that interest in children’s understanding of mental life, and their perspective on why people behave the way they do, began to revive; since the early 1990s there has been a great increase in developmental research on children’s understanding of emotion, mind, and intention. The focus has been chiefly on normative developmental changes in children’s understanding of emotional and mental life and their relation to people’s behavior, beginning with the work on infancy that highlights the extent to which babies are ‘prepared to learn about people’ from very early in infancy. For example, babies discriminate different emotional expressions very early (a key first step for understanding emotions); by the time they are nine months old they already act in ways that indicate they have considerable grasp of affective communication, and are able to communicate their desires— clearly, these are efforts at symbolic communication. At the end of the first year, the emergence of ‘social referencing’ is a key development: in situations of ambiguity for the baby (such as when a strange person or object appears), the baby looks at a familiar adult (in most experimental settings, the mother), and apparently is guided by her emotional expression, showing different behavior if she is expressing happiness or fear, for instance. Such differential behavior is taken as evidence that the baby ‘understands’ that the mother’s emotional expression provides important information about the ambiguous situation.

During the second year, babies begin to show pride, shame, and embarrassment—the ‘social emotions,’ emotions that highlight how closely tuned the children are to other people’s reaction to them. They also clearly show their understanding of others’ feelings in their attempts to comfort, tease, and joke, and, with the acquisition of language, in their talk about feelings (Bartsch and Wellman 1995).

The marked changes between two and five years old in children’s ability to distinguish thoughts and things; their increasing interest in talking about feeling, thinking, and knowing; their curiosity about why people behave the way they do; their ability to play with hypothetical social events, to share narratives in pretend play, and to deliberately deceive others, have been documented in a burst of research since the early 1990s (Astington 1993). There has been considerable controversy about the details of the timing of these normative changes (conclusions about children’s abilities depend very much on the methods used and the setting in which children are studied; see Sect. 2), and competing theoretical accounts of these cognitive changes have been articulated. However the broad outline of development in what has been termed children’s ‘theory of mind’ has been mapped, as follows.

Children’s understanding of people’s feelings and mental states, and their use of this understanding to explain and predict people’s behavior begins in infancy, as the evidence of their intention to communicate shows. It develops in the toddler years with their growing ability to talk first about what they and other people see, want, and feel, then later in their talk about what they think and know. The critical understanding that people behave in the world as they see it or believe it to be, even when those beliefs or perceptions may be inaccurate, is reached by most children around four years. Note that much of the most recent research emphasizes the substantial competence of children as young as three, and the gradual nature of developmental change. A key tool in this research has been the demonstration that children understand how a ‘false belief ’ can influence how someone will behave.

Other key developments in children’s social understanding include children’s growing understanding that people are different, their grasp of understanding the self, and their moral understanding. On the first of these, children’s understanding and attribution of traits, a clear developmental pattern was described from work in the 1970s and 1980s, with marked change around six to eight years in children’s appreciation of trait terms; it is usually presumed that this reflects age-related cognitive changes. Recently the ‘theory of mind’ research has been integrated with this ‘traditional’ approach, and there is increasing empirical support for the idea that both cognitive development and sociocultural influence play a role in the development of trait attribution (Hala 1997).

On the development of moral understanding, there has been a parallel shift from a focus primarily on the cognitive underpinnings of moral development (e.g., Kohlberg 1984) to a recognition that cognition, emotion, and moral action are closely interrelated (Eisenberg et al. 1997). Thus while we now know that developmental changes in prosocial behavior are complex, and influenced by the methodology employed (Eisenberg and Fabes 1998), it is recognized that the relations between perspective-taking abilities and prosocial behavior are moderated by affective factors, by the particular emotional relationship between the child and the other person involved, and by the child’s interpretation of the situation, and attributions about the individuals involved.

1.3 Individual Differences In Social Cognition

Individual differences in sociocognitive abilities have been shown to be importantly linked to children’s adjustment and ‘social competence’ (skills, deficits) in middle childhood; the wealth of research on social cognition and children’s peer relations—and specifically to problems in those relations—illustrates these associations. One line of research has focused on information-processing models (as in Dodge’s 1986 social information-processing model), which highlight children’s attributions about their peers, their goals, and strategies in peer relations. These models conceptualize an ordered series of steps in social information processing that includes encoding and representational processes, search and decision-making strategies. Differences in processing patterns may underlie the form of aggressive behavior that children show towards their peers. Experimental studies with aggressive children show, for instance, that they did not attend to all relevant cues, they attributed hostile intent to a protagonist in an ambiguous setting, and failed to generate enough viable alternative strategies. The original social information-processing models were criticized on the grounds that the linear model was too constrained, and that no role of emotion was included. Revised models now include emotional states as influences on what is perceived, how it is processed, and what attributions are made.

A second line of evidence links children’s thoughts about themselves, such as their perceptions of their own competence, to individual differences in peer relations (Ladd 1999). Thus children who are both aggressive and rejected by their peers, compared to other children, overestimate their own social skills and competence, and underestimate the degree to which their peers dislike them. Other research links individual differences in early social understanding to later differences in moral sensibility, and to the ways in which children adjust to school. Such findings high-light the importance of clarifying what are the key processes implicated in the development of such individual differences in social understanding.

1.4 Social Experience As Contributor To Individual Differences In Social Understanding

To understand these individual differences in children’s social understanding, it is increasingly clear that their social experiences must be examined. Research that includes a focus on social experiences not only reveals children’s abilities vividly, but also suggests some key processes implicated in their development (Dunn 1996). The interactive events that have been highlighted include sharing a pretend world with another person (especially a peer or sibling), participation in conversations about inner states (Bartsch and Wellman 1995), joint narratives and causal discourse about the social world, engagement in certain kinds of ‘constructive’ conflict with others. For example, several studies have shown that children who grew up in families in which they participated in discourse about feelings, and causal talk about why people behave the way they do, were, in later assessment of social understanding, more successful than those who had not engaged in such talk; other research has shown that those who had experienced much shared, cooperative pretend play with a sibling were also in later assessments particularly mature in their social understanding.

Three general principles that emerge from this empirical research are the following. First, the emotional context in which such interactions take place may be key to what is learned; it is not simply the child’s exposure to new information or another’s point of view that matters, but the emotions and pragmatics of the relationship between the interactants that are important. Second, how children use their social understanding in real-life interactions differs in different social relationships, depending on the quality of that relationship. Relationship quality depends on both partners, and is unlikely to be linked simply to the sociocognitive skills of either partner. Third, different kinds of social relationship appear to play different roles in influencing the development of social understanding.

Two recent lines of evidence illustrate this point. First, studies of child–child relationships show these peer interactions to be of special significance in the development of understanding feelings and other minds, and of moral sensibility (as originally proposed by Piaget [1932] 1965). Second, recent work on attachment quality links the security of children’s attachments to their later mind-reading abilities—and it is inferred that the key process implicated here is mothers’ sensitivity to their children’s current levels of understanding and their use of mental state terms in interactions with them, a propensity that Meins (1997) refers to as ‘mind-mindedness.’ The role of family processes, more broadly conceived, in influencing children’s social cognitive abilities during early and middle childhood—both directly and indirectly— continues to be a focus of much research interest. It should be noted that inferences about the direction of effects in such research present particular problems.

1.5 The Significance Of Cognitive Processes In Social Development

The advances in our understanding of children’s cognitive development have important implications for how we view and study children’s social development and their social relationships—both the nature of social development and the processes implicated in it. First, what has been learned from cognitive research about the development of understanding of emotion and mind in childhood, means not only that dimensions of empathy and understanding are part of their early close relationships, but that aspects of intimacy (previously thought only relevant to the relations between much older children) may also be present in the relationships between preschoolers. Thus observational research shows that three year olds who are close friends engage in shared imaginative play in which their cooperation, the smooth coconstruction of narratives, reflect an impressive ‘meeting of minds’—a mutual understanding of how the other thinks the play might develop, and what are the exciting next moves in the narrative. Second, the cognitive research alerts us to the importance of looking beyond the ‘security’ aspects that have dominated conceptions of parent–child relationships. Manipulation of control and power within a dyadic relationship, deception, teasing, and shared humor all depend on a grasp of the other’s motivation, beliefs, desires, and capacities. These dimensions may well be relevant for a full account of young children’s relationships. Third, to understand developmental changes in children’s social relationships, the evidence for developments in metacognitive skills is clearly relevant. Perhaps most important of all are the implications of cognitive research for children with difficulties in social relations, for example children with problems such as autism or hyperactivity. Whether these children’s social problems are antecedent to or sequels of their cognitive problems remains a question of central social and clinical importance, as well as one of theoretical interest.

Two other lessons from cognitive research have major implications for the study of children’s sociocognitive development. The first concerns the developmental impact of relationships between other people. Cognitive research has shown us that children are interested in, and reflect on, others’ intentions, thoughts, and feelings, reminding us to pay attention to the developmental impact of what is happening between the other people in children’s social worlds. Three lines of evidence illustrate this significance: the evidence for the negative impact of marital conflict on children’s adjustment; the research on co-parenting, which shows the poor outcome of children whose parents disagree and fail to support one another over parenting; and third, the accumulating evidence that differential treatment of siblings within the family is associated with later problems in children’s development.

The second lesson is that the evidence for children’s interest in the inner states of others suggests that children may be sensitive to the responses, opinions, and relationships between other members of their peer groups to an extent that is only recently being appreciated. Recognizing that children’s problems in peer group relations are a key marker for later adjustment problems suggests that further attention to this sensitivity to the group is important.

2. Methodological Issues And Problems

In research on social cognition there is a new concern with the contextual validity of experimental tasks used, particularly in terms of the social situation in which children are placed in such tasks; their relationship with the experimenter plays a role in their task performance (Dunn 1996). More generally there is a concern to expand the social context of such studies to more ‘real-life settings’: research within a Vygotskean framework, for example, has chiefly been limited to adult–child encounters of a didactic nature, which are affectively neutral—unlike the interactional settings within the family in which children are likely to make advances in sociocognitive ability (Goodnow 1990).

Research on children in real-life social settings—as opposed to controlled experimental settings— highlights the capacities that even young children can show in the domain of understanding other people’s feelings, beliefs, and intentions. Studies of natural discourse have been centrally important here (Bartsch and Wellman 1995). There is a tension here in current developmental research, as the naturalistic data suggest children’s capacities for social understanding are evident at considerably younger ages than would be expected on the basis of the standard experimental assessments of sociocognitive development; the various studies of deception provide a good example (Dunn 1996). Such studies not only show that children’s abilities may be misrepresented by their limited abilities in more formal settings; they have also contributed importantly to ideas on the social processes that may influence the development of individual differences in social cognition.

Different methodologies can importantly affect the inferences we make about children’s prosocial behavior (Eisenberg and Fabes 1998), as well as about their mind-reading and emotion understanding. Moreover, children use their sociocognitive abilities differently within their various relationships: one lesson from research that focuses on children in different relationships is that we should move away from the conception of sociocognitive capacity as a characteristic of a child that will be evident in all social situations (Dunn 1996).

3. Future Directions

Among the many challenges posed by the research to date, four stand out as key. First, to make progress in understanding the development of social understanding, we need to address the difficult issue of how affect is linked to cognitive change, and to bridge the divide between research on social and cognitive development. The developmental work that documents children’s explanations of people’s actions first in terms of emotions and desires, and then later incorporating the notion of belief, has led for instance to the provocative argument that an understanding of cognitive states arises from an earlier understanding of emotional states (Bartsch and Estes 1996).

Second, we need to investigate the differentiation of different aspects of social understanding—too often combined into global categories at present—and to further explore the relation of language and general intelligence to the various aspects of understanding the social world.

Third, the challenging question of how developmental accounts based on children within the normal range of individual differences relate to the development of children at the extremes remains both theoretically and clinically important. Fourth, more research on implications of cultural and class differences, and more diversity in the children studied is needed. Finally at a methodological level, researchers need to include both experimental and naturalistic strategies, and to study children in different social settings, to use as informants both children and others in their social worlds.


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