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October 4, 2013
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab

Research views childrens' moral compass

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – Elizabeth Boerger, Slippery Rock University assistant professor of psychology, and seven of her students are researching how young children develop their moral foundation.

In a project initiated in 2011 while she was in Mississippi, Boerger is studying how children's knowledge about themselves, as well as their understanding of other people, affects their behavior toward other children.

The research project involves seven SRU psychology majors: Karisa Mauthe from Karns City; Sarah Falkowitz from Knoxville, Tenn.; Courtney Pace from Jefferson Hills; Kaytlyn Lawrence from Hubbard, Ohio; Maddy Shiel from Georgetown; Ezinne Ugwuoke from Pittsburgh, and Tony Hoffman from Worthington, Ohio.

Hoffman, who also majors in therapeutic recreation, is working with Boerger on a book chapter that correlates the results.

The student researchers have helped with informational fliers and bookmark designs, choosing incentives for family participation and staffing information tables at community events.

Mauthe and Falkowitz have also co-authored a poster based on the Mississippi Character Project data that will be presented at the Cognitive Development Society meeting in Memphis, Tenn., later this month. Another poster has been submitted to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Undergraduate Research Conference in STEM.

"One of the things that most fascinates me about children's development, is their ability to make sense of other people's behavior by imagining what other people are thinking and feeling. Psychologists call this 'perspective-taking.' For a long time psychologists believed that as children got better at perspective-taking, they would also get better at getting along with other people. However, we've learned that just being able to take others' perspectives isn't enough. Children also have to want to do things that will help rather than hurt others. So, the question is, why do some kids who are good at perspective-taking want to help others while other kids, who are just as good at perspective-taking, might not care whether they help or hurt others?" Boerger said.

"One answer might be that children differ in how strongly they feel that it is important to their sense of self to be a kind, generous and responsible person. My study is examining whether this aspect of children's 'moral identity' allows us to predict which children will be involved in positive interactions with peers - and which ones will be involved in aggression." she said.

Her study, "The Children's Character Project," involves a number of one-on-one interviews with children ages 8 to 12 in western Pennsylvania. Children come to her lab for one session - usually on a Saturday - to complete the interview.

"The questionnaires we use with children are a lot like games," Boerger said. In one task, which measures self-concept, children are given a booklet with the words, "What I am like" at the top. The booklet contains a number of paired statements describing different kinds of kids. The use of paired statements allows the child to choose between two different characteristics they might have.

"We are trying to understand how different aspects of their understanding of self and the social world influences the quality of their behavior to others. An important thrust of our research is to look at the extent to which children's beliefs about how important it is to be moral - or not -relates to their actions and social behavior," Boerger said.

From the initial Mississippi data, collected in 2011-12, it appears children's moral identity does make a difference in how children behave, but only among children who have highly developed perspective-taking skills.

"Among the children who could easily understand how people's thoughts and emotions affect their behavior, the ones who felt it was very important to be moral were much more likely to share and help other kids, and much less likely to be aggressive, than children who didn't think it was important to be moral." she said.

Boerger, who formerly served as assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mississippi, joined the SRU faculty in 2012.

"Our preliminary results clearly show that, perspective-taking ability does not lead to the same level of moral behavior in all children," Boerger said. "Rather, as children get better at taking others' perspectives, their behavior takes different paths that reflect their beliefs about the kind of person they want to be. Children who value moral traits like kindness are increasingly able to show this in their behavior. But children for whom moral traits are not so important might continue to use aggression to get things they want."

Information about children's positive and negative behavior toward others is collected from each child's parents and a teacher.

The data gathering sessions last an hour and include a short questionnaire for the child's parents, Boerger said. The parent questionnaire includes questions about the child's positive and negative behavior toward other children. Information about children's positive and negative behavior with classmates is also collected from a teacher.

"The children seem to like this section of the survey a lot," she said.

"In addition to the self-concept questionnaire, we also look at children's perspective-taking ability, which has to do with how well they understand other peoples' thoughts and emotions in relation to social interactions similar to events the children might experience in their own lives," she said. "We tell a little story about three girls on a playground: One of the children is new to the school and alone on the swings. Two other girls are nearby, but clearly already friends and talking and pointing to the new student. The new student cannot hear the conversation."

"We then ask the child to make inferences about all three girls, including what they are feeling and what the child thinks are the two friends' intentions toward the new girl," she said. "We do this to measure the child's understanding of other people's emotions and their intentions."

"There is also a moral identity questionnaire that asks the child to imagine a child with a number of traits that are central to morals such as kindness, fairness and honesty. We tell the child to make a picture of this kid in her head, and to imagine what this kid would enjoy doing and how she would behave toward her friends. Then we ask the child a series of questions probing how she would feel if she were the imagined child.

These questions are paired statements, just like in the self-concept questionnaire, for example: "It would make me feel good to be like this kid" or "It would make me feel bad to be like this kid." Children's answers to these questions give us an indication of the extent to which being moral is central to their sense of self, Boerger said

The project is in the early recruitment stage, she said. She hopes the data gathering can be completed by spring. The project will involve approximately 60 children and their parents.

"I will then look to see if the results from the children in western Pennsylvania are consistent with the results from Mississippi. If the results are similar, it's a strong indication that children's moral identity places an important role in determining how well they get along with others." she said.

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.