How do we develop control over our thoughts, emotions, and actions?

I use experimental, individual differences, and developmental methods to examine linguistic and social influences on the development of executive functions and related cognitive abilities.

Children are notorious for struggling to regulate their behavior in order to achieve goals. How do they become capable of inhibiting urges, planning for the future, and switching between tasks without being told to do so? These skills rely on cognitive processes termed executive functions. I aim to gain insight into the nature of executive functions by examining the roles that linguistic and social processes play in their development. I am funded by an 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

The role of language in the development of proactive control

IMG_4641A key developmental transition is the ability to engage executive functions proactively, in advance of needing them. I explore the role that language plays in supporting the development of proactive control. I’ve found children are better able to track novel shapes in a task that likely taps proactive control when they are provided with labels for those shapes. I’m also testing whether transitions in 5- and 6-year-olds’ private speech (non-social speech used to support task performance) predicts 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. Manuscript in preparation.

Language and overriding conflict to engage executive functions

Engaging executive functions often requires overriding a conflicting response or desire in favor of a goal. Integrated representations of the conflict inherent in a task may facilitate executive functions, and language may support such representations. I’ve found that language that highlights 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.

Doebel, S. & Zelazo, P. D. Experience with contrastive language facilitates executive function in preschoolers. Manuscript submitted for publication.
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

Social influences on the development of self-control and social learning

Childhood self-control predicts a range of positive life outcomes in adulthood, suggesting it is a stable, early-emerging ability that supports adaptive behavior throughout life. This ability has typically been explained in terms of neurocognitive systems and psychological traits. However, another possibility is the extent to which self-control is valued and endorsed in social groups may vary dramatically, and this may account for some of the relationship between childhood self-control and later life outcomes. I’m testing this idea by examining whether group information can bias children’s tendency to use (or not use) self-control. In prior work I found that children avoid learning new information from individuals who break sociomoral norms (e.g., not sharing with or helping others).

Doebel, S. & Munakata, Y. Social influences on self-control: Children delay gratification when their group does. In preparation.
Doebel, S. & Koenig, M. A. (2013). Children’s use of moral behavior in selective trust: Discrimination versus learning. Developmental Psychology, 49, 462-469. PDF

Social and executive processes in the development of logical thinking

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 2.48.22 PMA key feature of human thinking is sensitivity to logical inconsistency– that a statement and its opposite cannot both be true at the same time. What processes underlie this ability, how does it develop, and what role might it play in social reasoning? I’ve found that children as young as four years of age detect logical inconsistencies when expressed by human speakers in a communicative context and that 5-year-olds avoid learning new information from previously inconsistent sources. Executive functions also predict logical inconsistency detection, controlling for age.

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

Publications

You can also find my publications on Google Scholar.

Peer-reviewed journal articles

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 in preparation.

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 in preparation.

Doebel, S. & Zelazo, P. D.  Experience with contrastive language facilitates executive function in preschoolers. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Chapters

Zelazo, P. D. & Doebel, S. (in press). 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.