Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, November 22, 2010

Fearlessness, Empathy, and Preschoolers: That Report

The Internet is currently full of references to a doctoral dissertation done at the University of Haifa by Inbal Kivenson Bar-On, a student of the well-known child development researcher Ofra Mayseless. Bar-On reported that when she investigated the abilities and behavior of 80 preschool children, the “fearless” ones showed differences from the “fearful” (for example, at

Whether the children were relatively fearful or fearless was ascertained by looking at their reactions to common events like separation from parents or the sound of a vacuum cleaner, or surprising objects like a jack-in-the-box. The operative word here is “relatively”-- it does not appear that Bar-On sought out children who were unusually fearful or fearless.( I ought to note that I have not seen the dissertation, and it looks as if everyone commenting has drawn their information from the University of Haifa press release which is on their web site; what we all say about it is very much subject to revision when we see the details.)

Pamela Paul, writing in the New York Times Sunday style section of all things, implied that the fearfulness-fearfulness dimension measured by Bar-On is equivalent to the aspect of temperament often called approach-withdrawal. Temperament is an aspect of personality that is thought to be “constitutional”, or biologically determined, and which stays basically the same from infancy through adulthood (although it naturally is expressed through different behaviors at different ages). There are half a dozen or more factors in temperament, but approach-withdrawal is a pretty obvious one, especially for children at the extremes. The approaching child tries new foods easily, goes up to the strange dog, behaves in a friendly way to strangers, and so on; the withdrawing child needs a long time to adapt to new things and avoids them as much as possible. It probably makes sense to think of approach and withdrawal as substantially related to fearlessness and fearfulness. Bar-On’s report that the fearless children were friendly also supports this view.

According to Bar-On’s study, the children who were evaluated as fearless were quite good at recognizing when other children had facial expressions of anger, surprise, happiness, or sadness, but they did not readily recognize an expression of fear. The fearful children did a better job at recognizing fear. The fearless children were also more likely to take advantage of other children, and less likely to be remorseful when they had done wrong. Bar-On reported that these differences were like constitutional differences in temperament-- they resulted from genetic variations, not from parenting effects.

However, it’s difficult to determine that normal behaviors in 3- and 4-year-olds are purely constitutional in nature. Much behavioral development is transactional in nature; whatever the basic characteristics of parent and child, they influence each other and each shapes the behavior of the other. As a relevant example, let’s look at how infants make use of fearful facial expressions shown by other people. From 8 or 9 months, babies are able to avoid a lot of trial-and-error involvement with potentially dangerous things. When they encounter a new or unusual person or thing, infants try “social referencing”-- they look at the face of a nearby familiar adult. If that person looks (or sounds) frightened, the baby backs off and avoids the strange event. If the adult looks happy, the baby gradually moves to explore. This is why well-cared-for babies don’t have nearly as many accidents as they might. The mother’s frightened face as the baby crawls toward the unguarded stairs or starts to reach for the candle flame warns most babies very effectively.

But what would happen if a particular baby were not very good at recognizing a fear-face? He or she would not back off in response to the parent’s fear. The caregiver would have to move to keep the baby safe, perhaps swooping down and grabbing the baby away from danger, or even smacking his hands in an effort to get the lesson across. The baby might then associate another person’s expression of fear with the baby’s experience of aggression. Rather than an empathic response to the other’s fear, the baby might be angered by seeing another person look fearful, and by preschool age this could be shown in instrumental aggression toward other kids and a sense that this is justified.

Of course, this is all complete speculation on my part-- I have no idea how this would really happen-- but when we put together the transactional aspect of development, the infant use of “social referencing”, and the vigorous efforts made by attentive caregivers to find ways to keep babies safe, the scenario I’ve given is not an impossible one. In addition, it’s a scenario that would be complete by the preschool period, and would not necessarily be detectable unless longitudinal research followed each child from infancy. These events would be a mechanism that combined the child’s constitutional characteristics with the effects of experience, and would suggest that it’s possible for the child to learn to behave differently. Interestingly, this possibility shows that acceptable, appropriate, even admirable parent behavior might have an effect on some children that would increase undesirable child behaviors like aggressiveness. In this, there is a resemblance to the work of Graziela Kochanska on more fearful children, showing that very ordinary levels of punishment may be so overwhelming for some children that little learning about behavior is produced.

In Pamela Paul’s Times piece, she quotes the comments of the SUNY at Buffalo developmental psychologist Jamie Ostrov on the Bar-On report ( I must say that these comments were the first thing to catch my eye in Paul’s column, and they raised my eyebrows instantly. Ostrov was quoted as saying that the fearless children “may be charming, but they’re also highly manipulative and skilled at getting their way-- even at age 3 or 4”. I must question what Ostrov was talking about, and the extent to which this view (so characteristic of some unconventional child psychotherapies with which I would not expect Ostrov to be involved ) is actually supported by empirical work. None of Bar-On’s material which is available to me says the fearless children were charming, although it does say they were friendly; the idea of “psychopathic charm” is one which has been pushed hard by “attachment therapists”. Ostrov’s statement that fearless preschoolers are highly manipulative and skilled at getting their way (also a tenet of “attachment therapy”) is at odds with what is known about the development of Theory of Mind, a set of abilities by which we understand what other people know, think, and want. Three-year-olds may want very much to manipulate people, but they do a poor job because they do not understand how deception works. Four-year-olds are much better and can sometimes tell a convincing lie, but they have nothing like adult skills (very fortunately for all of us parents and teachers). Why did Ostrov take this opportunity to pass on some poorly-substantiated ideas about personality and mental health in childhood? Was he simply misquoted, or was a longer explanation omitted? I really don’t know, but I’d like to have an explanation from someone.

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