How do social processes influence the development of self-control?

I use developmental, experimental, and individual differences methods to examine the role of social processes in executive functions and related cognitive abilities.

We weren’t born with self-control. Children are notorious for struggling to resist urges, plan ahead, and delay gratification. Developmental improvements in self-control depends on key cognitive processes termed executive functions. Decades of research have advanced our understanding of the neurocognitive systems and psychological traits that support developing executive functions; however, like other cognitive skills, executive functions do not develop in isolation, they develop in a sociocultural context. I examine the role of social processes, such as language and group behavior, in children’s executive functions. This work can expand our understanding of how executive functions develop, and the fundamental interplay between social and cognitive processes.

I am funded by an individual NIH-NICHD Postdoctoral Fellowship (sponsor: Yuko Munakata) and am conducting my research in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado – Boulder. I completed my Ph.D. in developmental psychology at the Institute of Child Development in Minnesota, my B.A. in psychology at York University in Toronto, and also studied philosophy at the University of Toronto.

Research

Linguistic processes in developing proactive control

IMG_4641A key developmental transition is the shift from engaging executive functions reactively, in the moment they are needed, to engaging them proactively, in advance of needing them. How might language support the development of proactive control?  I have found that linguistic training provided prior to completing a proactive control task improves children’s performance on the task, and I am currently testing whether transitions in 5- and 6-year-olds’ private speech (non-social speech used to support task performance) predict individual differences in proactive control. This work suggests new ideas about why language supports a variety of executive functions, and how interventions might best be targeted.

Doebel, S., Dickerson, J. P., Hoover, J. D., Munakata, Y. Using language to get ready: Labels help children engage proactive control. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Doebel, S., Barker, J., Chevalier, N., Michaelson, L., & Munakata, Y. Getting ready to use control: Advances in the measurement of young children’s use of proactive control. Submitted for publication.

Language, representing conflict, and engaging control

Engaging executive functions often requires overriding a conflicting response or desire in favor of a goal. Being able to represent conflict among competing responses may aid executive functions, and language may support such representations. I have found that verbally highlighting the conflict between task rules predicts executive function on the Dimensional Change Card Sort, a widely used measure of conflict EF in children, and that brief experience with contrastive language facilitates executive functions in preschoolers. These findings suggest that language may not only be critical to maintaining goals in mind, but may also trigger such maintenance.

Doebel, S. & Zelazo, P. D. (in press). Experience with contrastive language facilitates executive function in preschoolers. Cognition.
Doebel, S. & Zelazo, P. D. (2015). A meta-analysis of the Dimensional Change Card Sort: Implications for developmental theories and the measurement of executive function in children. Developmental Review, 38, 241-268. PDF
Doebel, S. & Zelazo, P. D. (2013). Bottom-up and top-down dynamics in young children’s executive function: labels aid 3-year-olds’ performance on the Dimensional Change Card Sort. Cognitive Development, 28, 222-232. PDF

Group influences on developing executive functions

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-4-27-59-pmChildhood executive functions predict success in life (e.g., academic achievement, health, wealth), a finding that has typically been accounted for in terms of early developing neurocognitive systems and psychological traits; however, the role of  social norms and values around self-control has not been explored.  I have found that children who believe their group members delay gratification are more likely to do so than children who believe that their group members do not. These and other findings suggest group processes may support the development of executive functions and could be targeted in interventions to improve them.

Doebel, S. & Munakata, Y. Social influences on self-control: Children delay gratification when their group does. In preparation.

Social influences on reasoning in young children

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-4-30-38-pmThe development of reasoning has typically been viewed as occurring through children’s direct interaction with the world, in isolation from others. However, social processes may be crucial to the emergence of this skill. I have found that young children use sociomoral information to guide their reasoning about what others know, and that their capacity to detect logical inconsistency is improved by the presence of a communicative context. This work contributes to a growing literature suggesting that social processes are pervasive in developing cognition, and suggests targeting them in future studies exploring how logical reasoning develops.

Doebel, S., Rowell, S. F., Koenig, M. A. (in press). Young children detect and avoid logically inconsistent sources: The importance of communicative context and executive function. Child Development. PDF
Doebel, S. & Koenig, M. A. (2013). Children’s use of moral behavior in selective trust: Discrimination versus learning. Developmental Psychology, 49, 462-469.

Publications

You can also find my publications on Google Scholar.

Peer-reviewed journal articles

Doebel, S. & Zelazo, P. D. (in press). Seeing conflict and engaging control: Experience with contrastive language benefits executive function in preschoolers. Cognition. PDF

Doebel, S., Rowell, S., & Koenig, M. A. (in press). Young children detect and avoid logically inconsistent sources: The importance of communicative context and executive function. Child Development. PDF

Doebel, S. & Zelazo, P. D. (2015). A meta-analysis of the Dimensional Change Card Sort: Implications for developmental theories and the measurement of executive function in children. Developmental Review, 38, 241-268. PDF

Doebel, S. & Zelazo, P. D. (2013). Bottom-up and top-down dynamics in young children’s executive function: labels aid 3-year-olds’ performance on the Dimensional Change Card Sort. Cognitive Development, 28, 222-232. PDF

Doebel, S. & Koenig, M. A. (2013). Children’s use of moral behavior in selective trust: Discrimination versus learning. Developmental Psychology, 49, 462-469. PDF

Manuscripts under review, in revision, or in preparation

Doebel, S. & Munakata, Y. Social influences on self-control: Children delay gratification when their group does. In preparation.

Doebel, S., Dickerson, J. P., Hoover, J. D., Munakata, Y.  Using language to get ready: Labels help children engage proactive control. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Doebel, S., Barker, J., Chevalier, N., Michaelson, L. & Munakata, Y.  Getting ready to use control: Advances in the measurement of young children’s use of proactive control. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Chapters

Zelazo, P. D. & Doebel, S. (2015). The role of reflection in promoting effective rule use in adolescent self-regulation. In G. Oettingen & P. Gollwitzer (Eds), Self-regulation in adolescence. Cambridge University Press. PDF

Koenig, M. A., & Doebel, S. (2013). Young children’s understanding of unreliability: Evidence for a negativity bias. In M.R. Banaji & S.A. Gelman (Eds.), Navigating the social world: What infants, children, and other species can teach us. New York: Oxford University Press.

Corrow, S. L., Cowell, J., Doebel, S., & Koenig, M. A. (2012). How children understand and use other people as sources of knowledge: Children’s selective use of testimony. In A. Pinkham, T. Kaefer & S. Neuman (Eds.), Knowledge development in early childhood. New York: Guilford Press.

CV

Click here for the most recent version of my CV.

Contact

Psychology and Neuroscience Department
Muenzinger Psychology Building
University of Colorado Boulder
1905 Colorado Ave
Boulder, CO 80309

Email: sabine.doebel [at] colorado.edu

Lab: Cognitive Development Center (director: Yuko Munakata)

You can also connect with me on Research Gate or Twitter.