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"Our work provides the earliest glimpse to date of how preschoolers sense their selves," said lead author Dario Cvencek, a research scientist at the UW's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS).
The new findings, published in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, used a newly developed test to assess implicit self-esteem in more than 200 5-year-old children—the youngest age yet to be measured.
"Some scientists consider preschoolers too young to have developed a positive or negative sense about themselves. Our findings suggest that self-esteem, feeling good or bad about yourself, is fundamental," said co-author, Andrew Meltzoff, who holds the Job and Gertrud Tamaki Chair at UW and is the co-director of I-LABS. "It is a social mindset children bring to school with them, not something they develop in school."
Until now no measurement tool has been able to detect self-esteem in preschool-aged children. This is because existing self-esteem tests require the cognitive or verbal sophistication to talk about a concept like “self” when asked probing questions by adult experimenters.
“Preschoolers can give verbal reports of what they’re good at as long as it is about a narrow, concrete skill, such as ‘I’m good at running’ or ‘I’m good with letters,’ but they have difficulties providing reliable verbal answers to questions about whether they are a good or bad person,” Cvencek said.
To try a different approach, Cvencek, Meltzoff and co-author Anthony Greenwald created a self-esteem task for preschoolers. Called the Preschool Implicit Association Test (PSIAT), it measures how strongly children feel positively about themselves.
Using the test the researchers were able to show that self-esteem is not only unexpectedly strong in children this young, but is also systematically related to other fundamental parts of children’s personality, such as in-group preferences and gender identity.
“Self-esteem appears to play a critical role in how children form various social identities. Our findings underscore the importance of the first five years as a foundation for life,” Cvencek said.
The researchers are following up with the children in the study to examine whether self-esteem measured in preschool can predict outcomes later in childhood, such as health and success in school. They are also interested in the malleability of children’s self-esteem and how it changes with experience.
Grants from the UW’s Ready Mind Project, and the Implicit Cognition Research Fund supported the research.