How do we develop minds that can reflect, reason, and self-regulate?

The focus of my research is to understand how experience shapes the development of executive functions, the set of cognitive skills that allow us to engage in flexible, goal-directed behavior. Decades of work has illuminated the neurocognitive changes that support the development of these skills. However, children don’t develop in isolation; they develop in rich social, linguistic, and cultural contexts that undoubtedly influences them in myriad ways.  By gaining deeper insight into how such experiences influence developing executive functions, we will not only better understand these processes, but will also be in a better position to intervene to support their development in all children.

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.

Lines of Research

Influences of social contexts and knowledge on children’s self-control

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-5-30-25-pmYoung children are quick learners and rapidly acquire rich knowledge about their social world. My work is exploring how social contexts and knowledge influence how children use self-control.  I have found that young American children show more self-control and value it more if they believe their group members do. I am currently testing the extent to which this finding generalizes to a non-Western culture that strongly emphasizes context and relationships — Japan. Future work will explore other ways culture-specific social beliefs could influence the use of control. Collectively this work is revealing that self-control and related skills may be much more socially and culturally influenced than previously thought, and suggests context should play a more prominent role in developmental accounts of control.

The role of language in the development of executive functions

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-4-30-28-pmChildren develop the ability to self-regulate while immersed in environments rich with linguistic input from parents, teachers, and peers. How does this input influence developing executive control processes? I was awarded an NRSA postdoctoral grant from NICHD to address this question. My work is finding that language may shape two key aspects of executive control in childhood: cognitive flexibility and proactive control.  In meta-analytic and experimental work I have found evidence that langauage that highlights conflict between goals supports children’s cognitive flexibility. In experimental and individual differences work I  have also found that labels help children engage executive control proactively. These findings suggest specific mechanisms through which language could shape the development of executive processes.

The role of experience in the development of logical thought

Children grow up in diverse cultural, physical, and linguistic contexts that may influence how they develop logical concepts and thought. For example, I have found that Western children who are four years of age can detect logical inconsistencies when expressed in a social context that encourages consideration of the speakers’ reliability. And the ability to detect inconsistencies is predicted by individual differences in working memory, executive function, and verbal knowledge. Future work will further explore influences of social, cultural, and linguistic experience on inconsistency detection and logical necessity understanding, and how these logical skills relate to reasoning and skepticism beyond the lab.


Note: Electronic copies of these journal articles are provided as a professional courtesy for personal use only. These articles are copyrighted by the journals in which they appear. Commercial use or mass reproduction of these articles is prohibited. Please email me for preprints not linked below.

Peer-reviewed Publications

Doebel, S. & Munakata, Y. (in press). Group influences on self-control: Children delay gratification and value it more when their in-group delays and their out-group doesn’t. Psychological Science.

Doebel, S., Michaelson, L. E., & Munakata, Y. (in press). Beyond personal control: The role of developing self-control abilities in the behavioral constellation of deprivation. Invited commentary to appear in Brain and Behavioral Sciences. 

Doebel, S., Dickerson, J. P., Hoover, J. D., & Munakata, Y.  (2017). Using language to get ready: Labels help children engage proactive control. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. PDF

Doebel, S. & Munakata, Y. (2017). Talking to ourselves to engage control? Testing developmental relations between self-directed speech, cognitive control, and talkativeness. To appear in Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society. PDF

Doebel, S., Barker, J., Chevalier, N., Michaelson, L., Fisher, A. V. & Munakata, Y. (2017). Getting ready to use control: Advances in the measurement of young children’s use of proactive control. PLOS ONE. Open Access Publication

Doebel, S. & Zelazo, P. D. (2016). 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. 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.


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.


Click here for the most recent version of my CV.


Department of Psychology and Neuroscience
University of Colorado Boulder
Muenzinger Psychology Building, 345 UCB
1905 Colorado Ave
Boulder, CO 80309

Email: sabine.doebel [at]

Lab: Cognitive Development Center (director: Yuko Munakata)

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