When Do Kids Start to Care About Other People’s Opinions: Sara Valencia Botto (Transcript)

In this talk titled “When Do Kids Start to Care About Other People’s Opinions”, psychologist Sara Valencia Botto explores when and how children begin to change their behaviors in the presence of others and what it means for the values we communicate in daily interactions.

Sara Valencia Botto – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

I’d like you to take a moment and consider what you are wearing right now.

I have a deep, philosophical question for you. Why are we not all wearing comfortable pajamas right now?

Well, I’m a psychologist and not a mind reader, although many people think that’s the same thing. I can bet you that your response is somewhere along the lines of, “I’m expected to not wear pj’s in public” or “I don’t want people to think I am a slob.”

Either way, the fact that we all chose to wear business casual clothing, as opposed to our favorite pair of sweatpants, is not a silly coincidence. Instead, it reveals two defining human characteristics.

The first is that we are cognizant of what other people value, like what they will approve or disapprove of, such as not wearing pj’s to these sorts of settings.

And two, we’ve readily used this information to guide our behavior. Unlike many other species, humans are prone to tailor their behavior in the presence of others to garner approval.

We spend valuable time putting on make-up, choosing the right picture and Instagram filter, and composing ideas that will undoubtedly change the world in 140 characters or less.

Clearly, our concern with how other people will evaluate us is a big part of being human. Despite this being a big human trait, however, we know relatively little about when and how we come to care about the opinion of others.

Now, this is a big question that requires many studies. But the first step to uncovering this question is to investigate when in development we become sensitive to others’ evaluations.

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I have spent the past four years at Emory University investigating how an infant, who has no problem walking around the grocery store in her onesie, develops into an adult that fears public speaking for fear of being negatively judged.

Now, this is usually a point when people ask me, “How do you investigate this question, exactly? Infants can’t talk, right?”

Well, if my husband were up here right now, he would tell you that I interview babies, because he would rather not say that his wife experiments on children.

In reality, I design experiments for children, usually in the form of games. Developmental psychologist Dr. Philippe Rochat and I designed a “game” called “The Robot Task” to explore when children would begin to be sensitive to the evaluation of others.

Specifically, the robot task captures when children, like adults, strategically modify their behavior when others are watching. To do this, we showed 14 to 24-month-old infants how to activate a toy robot, and importantly, we either assigned a positive value, saying “Wow, isn’t that great!” or a negative value, saying, “Oh, oh. Oops, oh no,” after pressing the remote.

Following this toy demonstration, we invited the infants to play with the remote, and then either watched them or turned around and pretended to read a magazine.

The idea was that if by 24 months, children are indeed sensitive to the evaluation of others, then their button-pressing behavior should be influenced not only by whether or not they’re being watched but also by the values that the experimenter expressed towards pressing the remote.

So for example, we would expect children to play with the positive remote significantly more if they were being observed but then choose to explore the negative remote once no one was watching.

To really capture this phenomenon, we did three variations of the study. Study one explored how infants would engage with a novel toy if there were no values or instructions provided. So we simply showed infants how to activate the toy robot, but didn’t assign any values. And we also didn’t tell them that they could play with the remote, providing them with a really ambiguous situation.

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In study two, we incorporated the two values, a positive and a negative. And in the last study, we had two experimenters and one remote. One experimenter expressed a negative value towards pressing the remote, saying, “Yuck, the toy moved,” while the other experimenter expressed a positive value, saying, “Yay, the toy moved.”

And this is how the children reacted to these three different scenarios.

So in study one, the ambiguous situation, I’m currently watching the child. She doesn’t seem to be too interested in pressing the remote. Once I turned around — now she’s ready to play. Currently, I’m not watching the child. She’s really focused. I turn around. She wasn’t doing anything, right?

In study two, it’s the two remotes, one with the positive and one with the negative value. I’m currently observing the child. And the orange remote is a negative remote. She’s just looking around, looking at me, hanging out.

Then I turn around. That’s what she’s going for. I’m not watching the child. He wants the mom to play with it, right? Take a safer route.

I turn around. He wasn’t doing anything, either. Yeah, he feels awkward. Everyone knows that side-eyed glance, right?

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