Two students are playing blocks with a client.

(Top) SIU researchers Ila Mostafa, left, and Calli Willett, right, play with blocks with Moe Jahn in the Social Cognitive Lab in preparation for a research study (Photo by Russell Bailey). (Middle) Mostafa and Youjung Choi, assistant professor, attend a Cognitive Development Society conference in Pasadena, California, where Mostafa presents a poster highlighting her ongoing study “Is My Friend Lying?” (Bottom) Working in the lab during the 2023-2024 academic year are, front: Ella Chapman and Ila Mostafa; middle row: Prachi Patel, Assistant Professor Youjung Choi, Zarria Williams-Walker and Caitlyn Kleiss;. back row, left to right: students Tori McNary, Lane Frost, Alyssa Cooley, Marie-Claire Diehl and lab coordinator Calli Willett; Bottom photo: Photos by Russell Bailey and provided.

May 20, 2024

SIU lab works with ‘tiny psychologists’ to learn how babies and children get social skills

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — How do newborns evaluate, develop and reason as they grow, and how do they become children with the skills to navigate the social world? By working with countless “tiny psychologists,” as they call their infant and children volunteers, the student and faculty researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Social Cognitive Development Lab (SCD) are exploring these questions and more.

“Our studies explore many topics, including how children make sense of other people’s minds, actions and emotions,” said Calli Willett, a 2023 psychology bachelor’s degree graduate with a minor in neuroscience from Magnolia, Texas, who serves as the lab coordinator. “Our research also explores how children begin to reason about others’ social preferences and social groups, along with how children develop their own moral reasoning. Ultimately, our goal is to discover what children know, what they understand, how they behave, why they behave that way and what social skills are acquired at different ages throughout development.”

Willett and her fellow researchers anticipate seeing some of their research findings published and presenting it at conferences.

Ongoing, multitiered research

The research team is led by Youjung Choi, assistant professor of psychology in the School of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences. After obtaining enriching research experience in infant and child social cognitive development as a postdoctoral researcher at Yale and Harvard Universities, Choi launched her own lab at SIU in 2020 to investigate how infants and young children learn social skills and to contribute to the research and understanding of the origins and development of the cognitive capacities that enable children to become competent social beings.

Choi’s team includes undergraduate and graduate students, and they currently work with child volunteers from the age of 3 months to 9 years. Research is conducted throughout the year, even during the summer.

Although the researchers schedule a half-hour for each study, many are much shorter, taking an average of 5-15 minutes, along with prep time. The infant studies take a little longer, averaging 30-60 minutes. The fun and entertaining studies use age-appropriate activities and methods. For instance, babies may watch a short video or puppet show, and then the researchers will record their viewing times and/or selections, while older children may play a game, hear stories, watch videos or PowerPoint presentations, or view pictures and then answer a few questions.

There aren’t right or wrong answers. It’s all about the child’s thoughts and perceptions.

The kids always seem excited about participating, Willett said, and they receive a $5 gift card or a small toy as a thank-you gift.

Pick your study from diverse selection

Depending upon their children’s ages, parents can choose what studies they participate in, as there are several diverse research projects taking place at any given time. Parents are also encouraged to ask questions and stay and observe the sessions.

conference-sm.jpgIla Mostafa, a doctoral psychology student from Moline, Illinois, studying brain and cognitive sciences, is a graduate assistant and future lab coordinator for the SCD. She is currently leading the “Is My Friend Lying?” study, which explores how children evaluate various types of lies and comprehend their reasons for lying.

“The overarching questions we are trying to answer are: Before children get involved in a relationship, how do they understand relationships, gauge behavior, make decisions,” Mostafa said. “In our studies, we are often looking to see if children can understand different social cues, such as lying, because that lets us know how children determine friendships and even how sophisticated their relationships can become. There is so much we can learn.”

She shares stories with the children about friends and their behaviors and then asks the children for reactions. For instance, if a character changes his mind and chooses to do the same activity as another friend instead of his preferred activity, can children infer why?  

 “We’re trying to focus on different aspects of friendships, the cues children pick up, how lying or other factors affect friendships, how children perform in and out of groups and how it affects their behaviors,” Mostafa said. “We want to understand the social cognitive development of children in terms of their intentions, goals, preferences and beliefs.”

Other studies going on at this time include:

  • “Who is the Boss?” – exploring how babies age 15-18 months and children age 4-9 years interpret other people’s social dominance and preference cues.
  • “Hide and Seek” – examining whether children age 2 ½ to 6 can keep track of other people’s perspectives of where a ball is placed.
  • “Guess the Friend” – a look at how children use shared similarities to understand social preferences and people’s relationships.

The recently concluded “More Food or Better Food” study focused on how children interpret social preferences based on the resource allocation of foods. The study will be submitted soon to a peer-reviewed journal for publication and a follow-up study will begin this fall.

In addition, there are two infant studies that will begin this fall:

  • “Music and Sharing” – exploring how 6-9- and 13-15-month-old infants understand the association between collaborative beat-keeping (keeping time to the music together) and food sharing.
  • “Helping and Friendship” – examining how 11–12-month-olds understand the role of voluntary behavior designed to help other people as it relates to friendship.

Each study is just one session, and children can do multiple studies, although not concurrently.

Multiple ways to participate

The lab is located in Room 212 at the Life Science II building, 1125 Lincoln Drive, on the SIU campus. Choi and her research team said they realize it can be challenging for parents to bring their children to the lab, even for short sessions, so they offer a variety of ways children can participate, including remote locations, such as the Carbondale Science Center at the University Mall and the Saint Louis Science Center, and online opportunities.

Parents can sign their children up to participate in a research study by filling out the online form. Find details about current studies online. Find more information about the lab, by visiting the SCD website or by following SCD on Facebook (SIU Social Cognitive Development Lab) or Instagram (@siuscdlab). For information, or to schedule an online session, email or or call 618-453-3505.

“It takes just a few minutes to be part of an important research project that is fun for the children and that is helping us learn more about how children and babies understand the social world, how they understand and form and make sense of social relationships,” Choi said.