I’ve been doing a social developmental Psychology PhD at the University of Kent in collaboration with People United for 2 and a half years now. My PhD focuses on how children develop positive emotions and how positive emotions can lead to positive behaviour. I’m especially interested in how children respond to moral, beautiful or virtuous behaviour such as kindness and generosity and how viewing these behaviours encourages them to act in a similar way.
I’m funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which is great as they offer a number of extra opportunities such as workshops, internships in government and visits to overseas institutions. Last year I applied for the overseas visit competition and a couple of months ago I packed up my bags and left Canterbury for Canada. I had arranged to visit members of the Social Emotional Development and Intervention (SEDI) Lab at the University of Toronto, who are experts in the field of the development of emotions.
I arrived in Toronto in early February and it was cold! I’m talking minus temperatures, where seeing your breath with every out-breath is normal. Snow was piled high on the roadsides and icicles hung off of every front porch. I survived by wearing thermals under everything, as many layers as I could on top and snow boots with double socks on my feet. I found the temperatures quite extreme, but according to the locals I was lucky that I’d missed the coldest part of the winter!
This is my first time in Toronto, first time in Canada and so far it’s been great. I love exploring new places and experiencing new things so it’s been exciting being immersed in a completely new environment. Although I arrived during the winter, the people that I’ve met have been warm. The city is built up with lot’s of shiny high rise buildings, it is clean, bright and spacious. In terms of the infrastructure, everything is bigger here; the roads, the buildings, the houses, the shopping centers (they are underground here!), the universities and the cars…
I’ve been spending most of my time at the SEDI lab, which is based at the Mississauga campus, about 40 mins west of downtown Toronto. It’s much greener in Mississauga and the houses are even bigger. The area reminds me of the typical leafy suburbs I used to see on American TV shows as a kid. I’m used to seeing rabbits and ducks on campus back in
Canterbury, but this campus has taken it up a notch with the wild deer and geese roaming around!
The SEDI lab is a research-rich lab, led by Dr. Tina Malti. As per the acronym, the members are interested in answering questions to do with social and emotional development such as: why do some children and adolescents engage in behaviour that is harmful to others, while others show high levels of concern for others? How can we reduce aggression and nurture the development of empathy and kindness? And how do children’s emotions develop in the face of early experiences of adversity and hardship? The team try to answer these questions by designing experiments that focus on different components and then asking children and their families to visit the university to take part in them.
A lot of the work done at the SEDI lab focusses on the emotions of sympathy and guilt. Sympathy is an other-orientated emotion, described as a feeling of concern for another’s misfortune or distress. Guilt, on the other hand, is a self-evaluative, self-conscious emotion, described as a painful feeling of regret associated with wrongdoing.
In the studies at the lab, children are presented with simple picture stories that involve these emotions. Guilt, for example has been assessed with ‘The chocolate bar story’. In the chocolate bar story, a child (victim) leaves his jacket with a nice chocolate bar in school hall. Another child (victimizer) takes the chocolate bar. After hearing the story, the children are asked questions such as: Was it right what the victimizer did? How does the victimizer feel? And how would you feel if you were the victimizer?
Results from studies like this show that most children say that stealing the chocolate bar is wrong. Interestingly, these studies have also revealed that the majority of 4-year-olds say that if they were the victimizer they would feel happy (because they walk away with a chocolate bar), however, most 8-year-olds say that they would feel guilty. This phenomenon has been called ‘The Happy Victimizer paradigm’ and helps us understand how and when children develop the emotion of guilt.
This finding made me think about whether children of different ages would respond to acts of kindness in different ways? Is there a certain point in our lives when we start to appreciate kind behaviour? If so, when? What factors influence this? And how does this affect our behaviour?
I’ve already learnt a lot about the development of emotions just by attending meetings, listening to talks and engaging in the subsequent discussions. I’ve spoken briefly to some members about my ideas, however, I’m looking forward to having more in-depth conversations about these specific questions and how we can go about answering them…