Psychology :: Childhood cognition research underway at Rutgers-Camden

A new research laboratory at Rutgers University?Camden seeks to determine how children develop cognitive skills, how cultural heritage can shape psychological perspectives, and the role memory plays in making judgments.

Rutgers-Camden professors and students working in the Culture, Cognition, and Development Laboratory are pursuing behavioral research that will offer a deeper understanding of how children and adults alike perceive the world around them.

“How our minds develop as an interconnected part of our cultural worlds, from childhood throughout our adult lives, is infinitely complex, but the details of that complexity are so important to our understanding of how we grow and think,” says Sean Duffy, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Rutgers-Camden research lab.

Undergraduate and graduate Rutgers students also work in the lab, which provides a unique learning opportunity through their work with volunteers in passive, non-invasive studies.

“Working on the Infant Development Study has been a fascinating experience. It is amazing to think that we can actually design experiments that measure how babies perceive objects and actions,” says Liz Kassabian, a student in the graduate psychology program at Rutgers-Camden. “While we may only be shedding light upon a small part of the process of human development, each piece, when put together, forms a mosaic of the mind’s journey from birth to maturity.”

Undergraduate student Jennifer Habina shares that enthusiasm for this unique research and learning opportunity. “We as students get to experience what it is like to actually run experiments, help gather the data, and have fun with each other. Being involved in that type of atmosphere really gave me the experience of what psychological research is all about,” says Habina, a Cherry Hill resident.

Duffy’s own research examines the development of the ability to make accurate decisions when one only has inexact information. In a recent article in the scholarly journal Developmental Science, Duffy provides evidence that children as young as five years of age rely upon statistical principles in order to increase the accuracy of their memories.

“When making judgments about an object for which one has only a fuzzy memory, people often rely on what we call ‘categorical’ information to help inform judgments,” says Duffy.

“For example, in remembering the height of a person you met last year, you combine inexact information about how tall the person actually was with information from the category of which that person is a member. If it was a male, you would use the fact that the average height for males is 5’9” to help you choose a value along the continuum of fuzziness in your memory.

“The statistical computations behind this are extremely complicated, and yet children as young as five show evidence that they use categories in the same way as adults, suggesting that this ability occurs at the start of life.”

While Duffy’s work reveals a process by which children increase the accuracy in their judgments, these processes may also be related to social stereotyping and prejudice. “This research may shed light upon the question of why stereotypes are so pervasive: the same mental processes that explain how children improve accuracy in most situations cause serious errors when the category itself doesn’t represent reality, which is the case with most negative stereotypes about classes of people. We are currently investigating how we might make children and adults more aware of these mental processes in order to reduce racism and prejudice in children’s thinking.”

Duffy seeks to continue research with younger children and infants. According to the Rutgers-Camden scholar, the role of the infant in his studies is straightforward: the infant, seated on the lap of the parent or caregiver, looks at a doll on a small stage. The infant then is shown a doll of a different size. “We measure the amount of time that the baby looks at the different objects,” explains Duffy. “That’s how we determine whether infants can perceive and think about differences in size.”

Duffy encourages parents interested in the study to contact him at (856) 225-6204. A modest reimbursement for travel to the Rutgers campus is offered. Duffy further notes the wealth of opportunities for families visiting the Rutgers-Camden campus. “It’s a relatively short test, which allows plenty of time for families to visit our fellow Camden Waterfront neighbors: the Adventure Aquarium, the Camden Children’s Garden, the Battleship New Jersey, and the other family attractions that draw more than three million visitors to our waterfront each year.”

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