How do we develop cognitive control?

I leverage developmental, experimental, and meta-analytic methods to understand how social processes shape cognitive control.

Humans are remarkable for their ability to control their thoughts, behaviors, and desires in order to pursue complex goals. Where does this ability to exercise cognitive control come from? One way to address this question is by examining how it develops. Children are notorious for struggling to resist urges, stay on task, and delay gratification; but with development these skills dramatically improve.

Decades of research have advanced knowledge on the neurocognitive substrates supporting the development of cognitive control. However, cognitive control does not develop in isolation, it develops in the real world, in a sociocultural context. In my research I explore how social processes, such as linguistic input and social norms, influence the development of cognitive control. My goal is to gain new insights into the origins and nature of cognitive control and related abilities, and to provide new ideas for how it can be improved in those who struggle with it.

I am funded by an individual NIH NRSA Postdoctoral Fellowship from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (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 aspect of cognitive control is its adaptability. We can engage it reactively, in the moment it is needed (for example, recalling a goal to stop at the store when driving by it), or proactively, in advance of needing it (maintaining the goal in mind to ensure a stop is made). This allows us to use limited cognitive resources wisely and efficiently. How does this adaptability arise? My research and that of others indicates that between  5 and 6 years of age, children increasingly engage control proactively, and I’ve been exploring the possibility that language plays a key role in this shift.  I’ve found that providing children with language that can support proactive control helps them engage it, and I’m currently testing whether transitions in 5- and 6-year-olds’ self-directed speech (non-social speech used to support cognitive performance) is related to transitions in proactive control. This work suggests a new explanation for how language supports cognitive control and how it can be improved.

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.

Linguistic Processes in Overriding Conflict to Engage Control

Engaging cognitive control often requires overriding a conflict in order to pursue a goal. In one line of work I’ve been exploring whether language might facilitate this ability by helping one to coordinate conflicting goals in mind. I’ve found that brief experience with language that could support such coordination is related to children’s performance on a cognitive control task, and providing training in the use of such language helps children engage control later on. Developing the ability to override conflict may depend on language.

Doebel, S. & Zelazo, P. D. (2016). Experience with contrastive language facilitates executive function in preschoolers. Cognition, 157, 219-226.
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.
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.

Influences of Social Norms and Values on Developing Cognitive Control

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-5-30-25-pmChildhood cognitive control predicts success in life on a range of outcomes (e.g., academic achievement, health, wealth). This has typically been explained terms of early developing neurocognitive systems, while social factors have received less attention. I’m currently exploring how social norms and values around the engagement of self-control may influence the development of cognitive control. I’ve 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 social factors like norms and values may play a role in the development of cognitive control, and explain links between childhood cognitive control and later life outcomes.

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-pmMy research program is guided by a broad interest in the origins of of higher-order cognition, and the role that social processes may play in its emergence. In addition to exploring this through developmental studies of cognitive control, I’ve investigated the development of logical reasoning.  I’ve found that young children use sociomoral information to guide their reasoning about what others know, and their capacity to detect logical inconsistency is improved by the presence of a communicative context. This work suggests targeting social processes in future studies exploring how logical reasoning develops, and how it can be improved.

Doebel, S., Rowell, S. F., & Koenig, M. A. (2016). Young children detect and avoid logically inconsistent sources: The importance of communicative context and executive function. Child Development, 87, 1956-1970.
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. 157, 219-226. PDF

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. 87, 1956-1970. 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.

Doebel, S. Kim, A., Miyake, A., & Munakata, Y. Talking to ourselves to engage control? Testing developmental relations between self-directed speech, cognitive control and talkativeness. Manuscript in preparation.

Doebel, S., Kim, A., Miyake, A., & Munakata, Y. Links between developmental transitions in proactive control and self-directed speech. Manuscript in preparation.

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

Department of Psychology and Neuroscience
University of Colorado Boulder
Muenzinger Psychology Building, 345 UCB
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.