Cooperation in early childhood

Being stranded on a desert island with Dr Annette Henderson would almost certainly guarantee that any available food would be evenly shared. In fact, she laughs, “I would probably starve myself”, given her tendency to put others first.

Jaxson, Annette’s son, performs a cooperation task with research fellow Dr Siobhan Kennedy-Costantini.
Jaxson, Annette’s son, performs a cooperation task with research fellow Dr Siobhan Kennedy-Costantini.

It's that ethos that also drives her longitudinal research into the development of cooperation in early childhood. Whether it be sharing a meal or driving a vehicle – cooperative behaviour is considered to be fundamental to the success of human societies. But why are some people more likely to cooperate than others, and why is cooperation difficult to sustain?

By looking at cooperative motivations, Annette says the study is trying to tease apart our behavioural ability and competence from our actual motivation and tendencies to cooperate – as well as trying to understand how to enhance people working together.

“We want to try to figure out how we can help our children grow into healthy adults. If you’re seen as being helpful and kind and caring you typically have better outcomes, so it’s important to look at those things.”

Having moved to Auckland in 2009 from the University of Maryland, Annette faced an initial challenge to establish a dedicated testing space for developmental research for children. What was a temporary space has now become the Early Learning Lab, Auckland (ELLA) – a unique facility in the new Science building where over 3,000 families have participated in a range of studies on social, language and cognitive development in childhood.

In keeping with her studies, Annette’s lab is truly cooperative. “Everybody has to help each other, and so when I interview new students I say that it’s a team environment and if you’re not going to be OK with this then this is not the place for you.”

Initially backed with University of Auckland seed funding, Annette ran a pilot study into early cooperative behaviour which became longitudinal in 2013 with a Marsden Fast Start grant, and which supported her research into cooperation development across the first three years of life.

Annette says the project snowballed into a sample that numbers 255 children and a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship in 2015 has given her another five years to be able to ask and answer more questions. “That’s the nice thing about funding around here,” she says. “If there’s a novel thing that you really need to do – and should do to drive the field forward – you can do that.”

The research is being conducted within two distinct projects, the first being to look at cross-cultural differences in young children’s cooperation understanding, ability and motivation. Because babies develop really quickly in the first year, testing began at nine months with simple tasks like passing a ball back and forth with parents to understand ‘turn-taking’. “We are testing whether infants who are good at passing the ball back and forth will become better co-operators later in life,” says Annette.

What followed at 12, 13, 22, 36 and 48 months was a series of more complex tasks that combined skill and co-ordination to measure early behavioural markers of cooperation with parents and peers.

Some people would say that children don't cooperate until they're three or four. I would argue that that's not the case.

Dr Annette Henderson

A novel twist to the research has been the development of ‘looking time’ measures, which involves the use of an infra-red eye tracker to capture a visual reflection on the cornea. “Through their eye gaze we can get a window into what they’re thinking,” says Annette, adding that no one has previously compared these really early measures with later behaviour to see if they’re related or not.“

Some people would say that children don’t cooperate until they’re three or four. I would argue that that’s not the case, so our research is trying to see what things are related to each other early on and how those develop across time.”

The cross-cultural element of the research involves a similar study of up to 100 children in Vanuatu that aims to address a perceived gap created by the fact that most cooperative studies have focused on so-called western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic (WEIRD) populations.

Describing it as an opportunity to expand her skill set, Annette says the Pacific Islands work has presented challenges including the variability of education across the sample. It has also validated her ‘other oriented’ tendencies. On a field trip to Vanuatu where everyone was hungry, she says she was “so anxious” about taking the last passionfruit.

A variety of factors such as biological and genetic makeup, education and important events in a child’s life – like an earthquake or parental separation – all have to be taken into account. Among the many challenges is the simple fact that Annette’s expertise is being stretched as children age so she’s having to learn about new ways to capture what children do that’s appropriate for their age group in order to ask 'the next big questions' about pro-social behaviour.

Annette, with son Jaxson
Annette, with son Jaxson

One of the most important factors in shaping the earliest cooperative behaviours are parent/infant interactions, which are the focus of the second project being conducted in collaboration with Associate Professor Mark Sagar at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute.

“We have to understand how early parent/infant cooperative interactions unfold in developmental time to be able to make models of those interactions,” says Annette, “so that we can learn more about parent interactions with babies, but also learn how to create artificial intelligence that can also engage in cooperative interactions.”

Given the fact that communication is a cooperative act – and that babies influence parental behaviour – high speed multi-angled video cameras are being used to capture eye and body movements between parent and child. The research also involves a ‘baby swap paradigm’ in which parents interact with another child to capture different reactions and help build hypotheses about what happens in a ‘good cooperation’.

However the process of coding video interactions frame-by-frame – recorded at fifty frames a second – in order to create a virtual baby is incredibly time-consuming and Annette concedes that they are a long way from that goal.

Nevertheless, progress is being made. Preliminary analysis is showing that what is being done in the lab really matters and Annette is excited by the fact that they can encourage cooperation development in some of the children by giving them specialised experiences. “Maybe we should engage in positive acts with our children early on so that we can encourage them to be better cooperators later on.”

William performs the robot task, another assessment of cooperation.
William performs the robot task, another assessment of cooperation.

While she is keeping an open mind as to whether “what happens early on doesn’t matter later on”, she says that parents should play simple games like peek-a-boo and passing a ball with babies even if they don’t think a child understands it.

“That’s the remarkable thing about babies, they understand a lot more than we think they do early on. So interacting with your babies in fun games that show this cooperative nature of interactions might actually be a nice way of enhancing their development. And it’s fun for parents!”

Given the recent trend in psychology to focus more on the positives than the deficits, Annette also believes that if she can understand why children are more likely to work with others then maybe that could be applied to adults “so that we can be kinder individuals and work together to solve problems that are harming our environment.”

Learn more about the work of the Early Learning Lab.


This article appears in the December 2018 edition of inSCight, the print magazine for Faculty of Science alumni.

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