Department of Psychology

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Department of Psychology • 62 Arch Street, Kingston, ON K7L 3N6 Canada • 613-533-6000 ext. 77897 •

Past Projects

Below you may read about our findings from recently completed studies:

Learning nouns and verbs

Study run from May 2004 to December 2005

Ages: 2nd grade children

Study run by: Toby, Kristen, Gaby

It is a dogma in the study of language that there is an arbitrary mapping between the meaning of a word and its sound. However, scientists have known for many years that this is not quite correct. Consider onomatopoeic words, e.g., ruff-ruff is intended to resemble the barking of a dog. Moreover, nouns, which label mostly objects, and verbs which label mostly actions, also differ systematically in their sound. Nouns, for example, have more consonants than verbs. In this study we examined whether children use their phonological knowledge, i.e., knowledge about the regularities in language, to learn new words. This question is important for understanding in particular second-language acquisition. We found that second graders indeed use their knowledge of English to determine whether a novel word is a noun or a verb. Interestingly, depending on the situation, children in French immersion programs relied on either their phonological knowledge of English or French to do the task.

Children's information seeking

Study run from December 2004 to May 2006

Ages: 4 to 5 and 7 to 8 year-old children

Study run by: Kristen, Elizabeth, Courtney, Julie, Julia, and Robyn

Children ask questions to learn about the world around them. But how do they decide who to ask? In a series of studies, we explored whether children readily decide someone is a reliable informant or not based on a single question. It proved that they indeed do, at least under some circumstances. Preschoolers were most resistant. We found that we had to encourage them to think that an answer reflects whether someone is a good or bad informant for it to affect who they addressed their next question to.

Kristen Dunfield used the data from these studies for her Master's thesis, which she defended in June 2006. Thanks to all families, daycares, and schools who participated!

Do Adults Know Everything?

Study run from July 2005 to May 2006

Ages: 4 to 5 and 7 to 8 year-old children

Study run in Canada by: Elizabeth, Courtney, Julie, and Robyn

This study investigated when Japanese and Canadian children begin to understand that adults do not know everything that children know. Children played a couple of games that asked for example whether a child or an adult knows best what tofu/cheese is made of. At the same time parents were asked to fill in questionnaires to provide background family information and examples of common parent-child activities.

Our findings indicate that Japanese preschoolers are much more likely to claim that adults know everything than Canadian preschoolers. However, by age 7, children in both countries clearly recognize the limits of adult knowledge. Interestingly, Japanese parents were much more likely to acknowledge than Canadian parents that their children know more about certain things (e.g., child TV shows).

We believe that the differences between Canadian and Japanese children are due to differences in child-rearing practices in Canada and Japan. In general, personal independence is valued more in Canada than in Japan while the opposite is true for interdependence (i.e., the connections with other people). Thus, Canadian children may come to realize that they possess some unique knowledge earlier.

This study was conducted with the support of the Center for Social Stratification and Inequality at Tohoku University, for which we are very grateful!

Role of source-of-knowledge cues in children's assessment of reports

Although children depend on knowledge obtained from others, little is known about how they assess the reliability of verbally communicated information. We studied how children from kindergarten to 4th grade use phrases like "I saw" and "Peter told me" to gage the reliability of reports. These phrases indicate the source of the information that the speaker is reporting. Children heard short stories and had to decide which one of two people to believe.

Our findings reveal that children's ability to use verbal source information in the assessment of reports develops only around 3rd grade. One interesting explanation of these results is that it is related to the schooling process and the gradual exposure of children to more and more information that is disconnected from their everyday experience (e.g., historical and geographical facts). This kind of information may be forcing children to pay attention to the reliability cues in the information itself as the typical reliability cues they may rely on (e.g., observations) are no longer available.

Children's information seeking strategies

When children search for information, they may return to someone they already know or approach someone they do not know. What determines their choice? We examine one possible factor: the truthfulness of the information obtained in a previous interaction. We expect that receiving truthful information from a person will increase the likelihood for a child to return to the same person in the future.

Children's understanding of age-related knowledge development

Many studies have shown that the epistemic authority of adults is greater that of peers. It is unclear, however, whether children represent adults as knowing everything that children know and more or whether they recognize that in some areas they know more than adults. We have shown that while preschoolers may think that adults know everything that they know, by first grade children recognize that adults do not know everything that children know.

We are currently extending this work to examine how culture contributes to children's representation of peer and adult knowledge. Expectations of deference toward adults, in which Western and East Asian cultures markedly differ, may affect children's representation of knowledge, which in turn may reinforce differences in social behavior. Alternatively, culture may affect public displays of deference but not the cognitive representations of who knows what. We are comparing Japanese and Canadian children to examine these possibilities.

Phonological cues in grammatical categorization

Our lab is part of an international project on the role of multiple cue integration processes in language development. The project is sponsored by the Human Frontier Science Program and is carried out by teams in France, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. In our experiments, we are looking into how the phonology of children's native language influences the development of grammatical knowledge about another (artificial) language.

Photo of a sock puppet

Principal collaborators:
Morten Christiansen, Cornell University, USA
Padraic Monaghan, University of Lancaster, UK

Eye movements as an implicit measure of children's source memory

The development of source memory - remembering where, when, from whom or how we have learned what we know - is critical for achieving a number of cognitive and social milestones. Yet source memory appears to develop slowly. A child might remember what object she has seen but not where or when she has seen it. Current understanding of the development of source memory is limited by its almost exclusive assessment by verbal reports. Verbal reports require explicit recollection and conscious awareness of the relevant past experience. In contrast, implicit memory influences current performance without awareness or recollection of the relevant past experience.

In this project, we investigate the relationship between the implicit and explicit source memory of children. Previous research with adults suggests that eye movements reliably target the source of the information that is being retrieved from memory. Thus we use eye movements as an implicit measure of source memory.