Learning from Others: The Influence of People on Event Memory in Infants and Young Children

Lauren H. Howard

From birth, the people in our environment shape the way we perceive, understand, and interact with our world. During my four years as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I have built upon these principles to ask whether people also shape what children remember about their world. In my previous research, I have found that children who watch an event that includes a person are more likely to remember that event than children who see the exact same stimuli without a person present (Howard, Riggins, & Woodward, under review). This “social memory boost” is not simply due to low-level stimulus enhancement (e.g., children attending more to the person-present event), and it is evident at the neural level (when examining children’s EEG/ERP responses), suggesting that people influence children’s memories in deep and meaningful ways.

            With the help of the Social Sciences Summer Research Grant, I was able to move beyond the question of if other people influence childhood memories, and towards questions of why this occurs. What information is inherent in the presence of a person that may influence early memory? Is this effect seen across development?

            Over the course of the summer, I made significant data collection gains in three individual projects. The first study adapted the methods in Howard et al. (under review) to examine the importance of people on event memory in infant populations. Nine-month-old infants were familiarized to a video, presented on a Tobii eye-tracking computer screen, of either a hand or inanimate claw building a simple block tower. At test, infants viewed a side-by-side picture of the familiar block tower and a novel block tower. Preliminary results suggest that infants in the hand condition, but not in the claw condition, looked significantly longer to the novel versus the familiar block tower at test. These findings suggest that infants as young as 9 months of age are affected by the inclusion of an person in an event, and they remember more about a constructed object if they see a person creating it.

            A second study investigated the possibility that the presence of a person encourages children to focus on the production of actions – both the person’s and their own. Research has shown that this type of “embodied cognition” can increase memory for events, and children often demonstrate better memory if they believe they previously produced actions themselves. Therefore it is possible that people prime children to think of producing the actions they are seeing, which in turn increases their recall. I primed 36-mos-old children with an action task, a hidden sticker task, or a control task before showing them either sequential events that included a person or did not include a person. In the action group, an experimenter demonstrated actions on three novel toys. In the sticker group, an experimenter showed participants a hidden sticker on the bottom of each toy. In the control group, an experimenter described perceptual features of the three toys (e.g. “Look, this one is blue!”). After the priming phase, children watched two short videos on an Tobii eye-tracking monitor, each depicting a 6-step construction sequence that culminated in the creation of a novel object. Half of the children saw this sequence constructed by a person while half saw the pieces ambiguously constructing without the presence of a person. After a short delay, children were given the pieces they had seen in the videos and were asked to reconstruct the sequence from memory.

            If seeing a person in an event automatically primes children to focus on actions, then the action priming manipulation should not provide any additional memory benefit. However, since children in the no-person condition do not receive any action cues, priming them to think of their own actions may help increase memory for the event. Indeed, preliminary results show that children in the person condition were able to reconstruct an equal number of steps regardless of whether they had been primed with action or sticker tasks. In contrast, children in the no-person condition who received action priming did significantly better than those who completed the sticker task. Data collection for the control condition is ongoing. This data suggests that priming children to think of an event in terms of a one’s actions may be particularly helpful for later memory.

            Finally, I began collecting data for a third study that examines whether the intentionality of a person influences event memory in 4-year-old children. In this study, children view a video of a person who is either intentionally placing shape blocks into a certain array or is accidentally dropping the shape blocks into the same array. After a brief delay, children are given the shape blocks and are asked to reconstruct the array from memory. Data collection for this study is ongoing.

            The three above studies will together form the majority of my dissertation. The Social Science Division’s Research Grant allowed me to spend the summer focusing on data collection that is critical to my progression in the program. Together, this body of work will help us to better understand the conditions that foster robust memories in both infant and preschool populations.