Cognitive Daily

What an ugly sweater!

It happens to everyone. You open a present and find a gift of so little personal interest that you wonder if you got the wrong package. The classic may be clothes presented to a preschooler; who can expect a 3 year-old to smile and say, “Thank you!” upon receiving a sweater? Somehow, we learn the rules about how to accept a gift, regardless of personal interest. Is it just a question of age? Older children are much better at politely thanking the giver than younger children. But gender seems to play a role, too. Girls are also more likely than boys to appropriately thank Aunt Margaret for that ugly sweater.

Jessica Kieras and her colleagues at the University of Oregon wondered if something beyond age and gender would predict children’s reactions to bad gifts. Specifically, how able was the child to control behavior in general? Perhaps it’s not about knowing the rules, or being a girl, but being able to control your behavior that allows some children to remember their manners.

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Let’s follow Bea, age 4, as she participates in Kieras et al.’s study. Bea is shown several toys and books and tells the experimenter which she thinks are the best, and worst, in the collection. After about 20 minutes of discussion, as Bea continues answering the experimenter’s questions, she is presented with a wrapped gift. Bea opens it to find her favorite toy from the collection, and smiling says an enthusiastic, “Thank you!” New books are discussed, and when she finishes rating them Bea is presented with a second gift. Unfortunately, this time when Bea opens the box it contains what she thought was the worst toy from the collection. She tries to smile and thank the experimenter, but really, she must be thinking, what a drag. After just 20 seconds, the experimenter trades that toy for Bea’s second favorite, as established during the initial part of the interview. What a relief! Bea’s reactions to the best and worst gifts are videotaped for later analysis, and the experimenter remains silent and neutral after each gift presentation.

Having recorded a sample of Bea’s emotional reactions to pleasant and unpleasant gifts, Kieras and her team now want to measure how well Bea can control her body, as opposed to her emotional expressions. They ask Bea to play several different games with them to measure her control. For example, Bea is asked to walk on a ribbon taped to the floor–easy and fun. Next Bea has to walk the same ribbon as slowly as she can. How much Bea can slow down her walk is a simple measure of effortful control. Bea also gets to play a very simple game with the experimenter and a pinball machine: Bea pulls the lever on the machine, and has to wait 10 seconds to see which card the experimenter holds up. A green card means Bea gets to release the ball, but a red card means to keep holding the lever. How well Bea can react to the cards, particularly to not releasing the ball to the red card is another simple measure of Bea’s effortful control.

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Research assistants were trained to rate the emotional displays from the videotapes of the children (68 children in all, ages 3-5 years-old) along positive affect (things like frequency and magnitude of smiles, and surprise) and negative affect scales (things like disappointment, disgust, and anger). The assistants did not know when they were rating emotional displays to the desirable or undesirable toy, and multiple ratings were done for each child and averaged together for both the positive and negative affect scales. As you might expect, desirable gifts had higher positive affect scores than negative, and undesirable gifts had higher negative affect scores. But the real question is whether the measures of effortful control were systematically related to the children’s reactions to undesirable gifts: when presented with their worst option from the toy collection, were the children who showed high levels of control on the ribbon walk and pinball game able to show positive affect, to smile and say, “thank you,” as custom demands? A comparison of reactions to the two gifts is the key. In particular, when Bea unwrapped her worst toy, did she smile as much as when she unwrapped her best toy? The smile following the worst toy might involve more effortful control on her part, as she has to work to show the socially acceptable reaction.

Indeed, regression analysis revealed that children with higher effortful-control scores showed smaller differences in positive affect following both toys–their reactions to both toys was more similar than children with lower effortful-control scores. Said another way, children who weren’t able to slow their walk down, or wait for the experimenter’s signal on the pinball game, showed larger differences in their reactions to the best and worst toys. It’s important to keep in mind that each child experienced desirable and undesirable gifts, and so each child acts as her own control. Interestingly, effortful-control scores were not related to displayed negative affect, and they found no effect of gender.

But, you may be asking, what about age? This is a much less interesting result if all the 5 year-olds simply had better manners than the 3 year-olds. Age didn’t matter for the emotional displays, but it did for effortful-control scores. The age of the child was not systematically related to how much more smiling occurred following the desirable versus the undesirable gift, and keep in mind that this difference is the key. However, age did predict effortful-control scores, with the older kids scoring higher. What this tells us is that effortful control is more important than chronological age for 3-5 year-olds when they are trying to control their emotional displays in keeping with social custom.

But this isn’t just about thanking Aunt Margaret, as important as that is. Being able to control your emotional reactions to situations can help you adapt to new situations, regardless of individual temperament. The fact that emotional displays in young children are related to effortful control brings new insight into differences in temperament, and how parents might want to approach the particular issues they have with their own children. Effortful control may help a shy child say hello and make a friend, and help the outgoing child refrain from hugging a stranger.

Kieras, J. E., Tobin, R. M., Graziano, W. G. & Rothbart, M. K. (2005). You can’t always get what you want: Effortful control and children’s responses to undesirable gifts. Psychological Science, 16, 391-396.