Cristine Legare

Psychology associate professor Cristine Legare received a three-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study how children develop scientific reasoning abilities.

Legare — who also serves as the director of the Cognition Culture and Development Lab — will work with David Sobel, cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences professor at Brown University, and Maureen Callanan, psychology professor at University of California-Santa Cruz, on the study.

According to an overview of the study, Legare and her team will study the behavior of various families with young children at children’s museums around the United States. Sobel said the team will use multiple museums for the research, but Legare will focus on the Thinkery, a children’s museum in Austin.

The experiment seeks to reconcile the seemingly incompatible nature of what the researchers call “exploratory” and “explanatory” learning, according to the overview. Exploratory learning refers to learning through hands-on experience, while explanatory learning refers to instruction from a teacher.  

“In addition to uncovering patterns of family explanation and exploration, the proposed studies measure children’s causal understanding and build on this knowledge base to develop and test effective interventions,” the overview said. “Children’s museums are ideal environments for this research because they give us access to everyday activity and conversations of families, and they provide a natural laboratory for testing the effectiveness of targeted interventions.” 

Sobel said the experiment seeks to understand how the interactions between parents and children relate to the causal structures in the museum exhibits. 

“We are looking at how the museums themselves can promote exploratory and explanatory behaviors in parents and children to support the learning opportunities that takes place in children’s museums,” Sobel said.

Cybil Guess, director of experience at the Thinkery, said she thinks the experiment will be insightful for both the researchers and the museum staff. Guess said the museum has collaborated with Legare before, but this experiment could improve the museum experience.

“This experiment takes her research and brings it to an applicable level,” Guess said. “I think the results of the experiment will allow us to do our job better at the museum.” 

According to the study overview, the findings of the experiment will produce new strategies for introducing scientific reasoning to children and promote children’s desire to learn more in the fields of science and technology.

Sobel said the grant will start in January.

In a study involving 182 preschoolers, a child psychology researcher at the University discovered new learning capabilities in young children.

In their research, Cristine Legare, psychology assistant professor and Cognition, Culture and Development Lab director, and University of California, Berkeley psychology associate professor Tania Lombrozo concluded having young children explain how to do something helps them make connections that encourages cause-and-effect thinking.

“Cause-and-effect thinking is basically knowing how something works,” Legare said. “A child was more capable of putting [a toy] together if they had explained all the parts.”

The researchers compared explanatory thinking with observatory thinking by studying children as they put together a toy, after either observing the toy or being asked to explain certain parts of the toy and how they function.

“We created things that interact with each other,” Legare said. “The goal of the child is to see each thing and be able to put the big picture together.”

Legare and her team had a partnership with the Thinkery, a children’s museum in Austin, where most of the data was collected.

Misty Whited, museum marketing and communications manager, said being involved with local research helps them improve quality of learning for children.

“This research gives us knowledge to make the best decisions on what we can do better at our museum so children have great learning experiences,” Whited said.

Legare said child developmental research is in high demand amongst parents.

“Parents are curious,” Legare said. “They want to know how their child is learning about the world around them.”

According to Legare, a key part of children’s learning comes from a mechanical understanding of the things around them.

“Causality is core,” Legare said. “Understanding how things work together is a large part of child development.”

According to Jessica Church-Lang, assistant professor in psychology, the research findings could have big implications in the world of education.

“The results are good in the context of education theory,” Church-Lang said. “It can help us understand how kids best learn and how we can promote deep knowledge.”

Church-Lang said educating future teachers about their research and similar research will help integrate the research findings into classrooms.

“Implementing cognitive findings into classrooms isn’t always easy,” Church-Lang said. “But, teaching the students over in the education department about these new ways of thinking and learning will promote a better future.”

Photo Credit: Stephanie Vanicek | Daily Texan Staff

Of all the experiences I had at ACL this year, the strangest by far was seeing three young, unsupervised children in the middle of a crowd going wild for Kendrick Lamar, a rap artist known mainly for his rhymes about the palliative effects of “Pussy and Patron.” Beside the kids, a college-aged man lit up a joint just above their heads. The moment made me pause and ask: What exactly, if anything, is wrong about this situation, and what am I supposed to be doing about it?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying explicit music. It’s possible, too, that these kids couldn’t tell the difference between tobacco smoke and marijuana smoke, and even if they could have, they may not have known that they were witnessing an illegal activity. What frustrated me, then, was that the young man besides them was completely ignoring his duties as a role model.

Cristine Legare, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, has researched the ways in which children imitate others. Her research has shown that when a child sees two individuals engaging in the same activity, they may conclude that such an activity — for example, sharing a toke at a Kendrick Lamar concert — is an acceptable social convention. Contrastly, her research also indicates that a child’s prior knowledge plays a large role in determining whether or not that action is socially acceptable.

So do college students have a duty to serve as role models when in the presence of children? College students as a group, admittedly, don’t have the greatest reputation. Type in “College students are” to the Google search bar and you’re prompted with the words “stupid, annoying, lazy, idiots [and] snobs.” Not quite a ringing endorsement. But the evidence points toward how college-enrolled millennials are actually quite admirable as a group, especially when it comes to civic engagement and volunteering. 

For example, a Spring 2013 poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics showed that nearly 53 percent of college students volunteer on a regular basis. According to the Longhorn Center for Civic Engagement, 75 percent of UT students volunteered last year, for a total of 1,000,000 hours that year alone.

Just by being enrolled at UT, a world-class institution of higher learning with a recognizable brand, we may already be seen as role models, whether we are aware of it or not. To the kids who visit campus throughout the year for events such as Explore UT or Ready, Set, Go, the campus and its constituency represent what the future could hold.

Ultimately, we enrolled at UT for a reason:  To learn how we can best transform lives for the benefit of society. We attend university to become virtuous contributors to civic society, be it through the accumulation of technical skills or the development of critical faculties. In both cases, the goal is to contribute to progress in society. In this sense, by gaining a university education, we not only contribute to our own self-betterment but also to the betterment of society.

While I’m not advocating that we stop enjoying ourselves as we see fit, I do think we need to be aware of how we project ourselves to those around us, especially easily-impressed-upon youngsters. On principle, I don’t think that smoking marijuana is an impermissible act, but I do believe that breaking the law in public sets a bad example for kids who see us.  As contributors to civic life, we should be mindful of how we interact with the youth in our community and try to personify the values we wish for our society — at ACL and elsewhere.

Sridhar is a Plan II, math and economics sophomore from Sugar Land.

A new study by UT researchers shows children are quick to learn the culture of their communities.

Psychology assistant professor Cristine Legare undertook the research at the Cognition, Culture and Development Lab of UT where 259 children from the ages of 3 to 6 watched videos of actors performing a task, such as beating pegs with a hammer. The actors modeled the tasks in a variety of ways, and the children were randomly assigned to one of eight possible types of modeling. 

After watching a video presentation of the actors, the screen was turned off. The same object which appeared in the video was placed in front of the child, and the child was expected to imitate the actors.

The children were given no clear instruction on how to imitate the actions in the video, and were given 60 seconds before the object was moved out of reach.

When children watched two actors, particularly two actors performing a task simultaneously rather than a single actor, they more closely imitated the actors’ performance of the task. In contrast, when children watched solo demonstrations, children were more likely to ignore the exact sequence of events in performing the task.

Legare, a co-author of the study, researches several topics in the field of cognitive development, integrating theory and research from cognitive psychology to examine cognitive process in cultural contexts.

“Children must be selective about when to imitate, when to innovate and to what degree,” Legare said. “This study provides insight into the kinds of information children use to learn information from other people.”

Paul Harris, a co-author of the study, is a developmental psychologist working at Harvard University interested in the early development of cognition, emotion and imagination. He is a fellow of the British Academy and of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.

“We were intrigued by the extension of how children will imitate where there is some kind of cultural practice. That led us to [have children view] not just one person but two people,” Harris said. “Kids are sensitive to group behaviors. That is the important fact.”

The study found that attention to social cues is a key element of the transmission of cultural knowledge. The ļ¬ndings indicate that children come to social learning tasks ready to interpret them. Language and the type of modeling are two signs that influence children’s copying mechanism. 

“Children are highly sensitive to social information and well prepared to acquire the cultural knowledge of their communities.” Legare said.

Update on Aug. 5, 3:30 p.m. - Headline has been changed to clarify study's findings.

To increase your chances of getting good grades in college, follow these steps: sleep in blue clothing with an open book under your pillow.

This is one example of a popular Brazilian ritual called a simpatia, a set of steps that some people believe can help them do a number of things, like finding a job or curing an illness.

To find out how people rate the effectiveness of a simpatia, a set of sequences that has no connection to the desired outcome, UT assistant psychology professor Cristine Legare and UT graduate student André Souza traveled to Brazil with funding from the University of Oxford’s Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, a program focused on cognitive development in religion, to research people’s evaluations of different simpatias. They found people’s understanding of rituals stems from how the human cognitive system works.

“Basically, what we are saying is that the characteristics that define rituals, rigidity of the action sequence, repetition of procedures and requirement of several steps reflect the way our cognitive system evolved,” Souza said. “Thus, we proposed that the way we evaluate the efficacy of rituals is very similar to how we evaluate and reason transparent actions.”

To quantify a simpatia, the team deconstructed a number of rituals to come up with three main aspects of a ritual that they could alter to observe the changes in a person’s view of the perceived effectiveness of the ritual.

“We manipulated a few dimensions we believed would influence the efficacy of rituals: presence of religious icons, number of steps and repetition of procedures,” Souza said. “We asked participants to read the rituals and rate their efficacy using a rating scale.”

For example, if a person wanted to find a partner, Souza said, the ritual starts off boiling a cup of water with apple pieces. When the mixture starts boiling, take the apple pieces out and wait for the water to cool down. Drink a little bit of the water and put the rest under an image of Saint Edwiges. Different people would be shown rituals like this with small variations. For example, one person might be shown the partner ritual without the image of Saint Edwiges.

“The results showed that information reflecting intuitive causal principles — repetition of procedures, number of procedural steps — and transcendental influence — presence of religious icons — affects how people evaluate ritual efficacy,” Souza said.

The study was conducted with 162 people from the southeast area of Brazil in the city of Belo Horizonte. It also included 68 people from the U.S., mostly from UT. Legare said they used public health centers to find subjects in Brazil. At UT, they found their participants from the undergraduate psychology subject pool.

“Even though we did not test people from other regions of Brazil, we know that the use of these recipes is very widespread in both rural and urban populations, and also that the level of education is not likely to influence that,” Souza said. “A reason to suggest that is the fact that we tested undergraduate students at UT and found pretty much the same results.”

Theresa Spalding, medical director for University Health Services, said while it is rare, UHS will sometimes prescribe alternative medicines to help patients.

“Alternative medicine does have scientific background and most of the drugs we manufacture come from natural herbs and remedies that are used in their raw form as alternative medicine,” Spalding said. “Stress relievers like meditation and talking therapy can also be used in conjunction with medicine, alternative or not.”

However, Spalding said rituals like the simpatias are off the table when it comes to treating patients.

“The simpatias are probably not something we would do, nor would be qualified as alternative medicine,” Spalding said.

Souza said when he was younger he would follow the simpatia to get better grades.

“Technically my mom would make me,” he said. “She would make me do it before exams. I don’t think it helped. My mom, on the other hand, thinks it was super effective.”