How subtle characteristics of our language can shape children’s social perception

[By: Lisanne Schröer]

Most of us are cautious with our language in front of toddlers and young children. We don’t want to risk that the child will imitate our offensive words. However, there are more reasons to be careful with language around young children. Recently, scientists have found evidence that more subtle characteristics of our language influence how children see themselves and the social world around them.

“Let’s be a scientist!” or “Let’s do science!”

Imagine you are a teacher who wants to motivate young children in a science class. Perhaps you try to persuade the children by saying something like “Let’s be a scientist today!” However, recent studies have shown that this identity-focused language (i.e. language focused on the identity of being a scientist) has exactly the opposite effect. In contrast, it was also found that when teachers change their identity-focused language (“Let’s be a scientist”) to action-focused language (“Let’s do science”), this improves children’s interest and persistence in science even three days later [1].

Language in terms of actions (“Let’s do science!”) instead of identities (“Let’s be scientists!”) also improved the persistence of especially girls in a science game [2]. Thus, subtle language components can help to reduce gender differences in science interest and participation among young children, and help reduce gender stereotypes. These gender stereotypes may cause girls to see themselves as not fit in the scientist category, resulting in fewer girls picking science as a career compared to boys [3].

Do all Zarpies eat flowers?

Another aspect of language that can shape children’s perception of social categories and groups is generic language, the language that refers to abstract categories. For instance, based on the generic statement “Swans are white”, you would expect that “swans” is a category consisting of white animals, and that there are no black, green, or blue swans.

To investigate the effects of this generic language on children’s perception of social categories, researchers introduced children to a fictional group of people called “Zarpies”. Zarpies were very diverse in appearance. Children were shown a picture of a Zarpie accompanied by a statement that was either generic (“Zarpies eat flowers”), or specific (“This Zarpie eats flowers”). Children who heard the Zarpies described in generic statements were more likely to view the particular characteristic of one Zarpie as a fundamental characteristic of the Zarpies group (also called social essentialism) [4]. These beliefs that social categories mark fundamentally distinct kind of people facilitate social stereotypes [4], for example that girls are bad at science.


We generally don’t think about how these specific aspects of our language influence our children’s behaviour and perception. However, recent research has shown that our way of phrasing things does influence young children. Perhaps by being more cautious with our language we can decrease the forming of rigid social categories about gender, race, identity and ethnicity in young children. After all, girls can be scientists and not all Zarpies eat flowers, and children should know this.



[1]: Rhodes, M., Cardarelli, A., & Leslie, S.-J. (2020). Asking young children to “do science” instead of “be scientists” increases science engagement in a randomized field experiment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 117(18).

[2]: Rhodes, M., Leslie, S.-J., Yee, K.M., & Saunders, K. (2019). Subtle linguistic cues increases girls’ engagement in science. Psychological Science, 30(3), 455-466.

[3]: Nosek, B.A., Smyth, F.L., Sriram, N., Lindner, N.M., Devos, T., Ayala, A., … Greenwald, A.G. (2009). National differences in gender-science stereotypes predict national sex differences in science and math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 10593-10597.

[4]: Rhodes, M., Leslie, S.-J., Tworek, C.M. (2012). Cultural transmission of social essentialism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 109(34), 13526-15351.

Photo references

Photo 1: Photo by Dominika Roseclay from Pexels
Photo 2: Photo by Tetyana Kovyrina from Pexels

Baby summer read for grown-ups

[By: Aude Carteron]

Summer wouldn’t be summer without book recommendations, and I wanted to tell you about the refreshing vacation read brought to you by ‘The Laughing Baby’ by Caspar Addyman. Perfect when paired with a deckchair and total sunblock.

You come for the catchy title, you stay for the entertainment of enthralling topics written in a captivating and fluid style. Add to this Caspar’s highly contagious enthusiasm for his field. If the heat is keeping you away from your summer workout goals, the book will at least exercise your cheek muscles through its wit as well as its up-lifting and moving messages.

I haven’t read many science books that strike the right balance between scientific richness with appropriate amount of references, and accessible style of writing, skipping tortuous details that only researchers would care about. This book highlights key debates that exists for long in the field of developmental psychology, such as what is innate and what is learnt, as well as presents opposing views in a balanced way. You even get to understand some applications of computational modelling.

Are you a parent?
I can imagine you will not only relate to the topics but also get to think about your everyday interactions with your baby from a new perspective. As the first chapter clarifies, it is not a book on parenting advice, but I am convinced you will get insights into baby science that could make your life with your baby even more delightful.

Not lucky enough to have a nephew baby around to visit and match the findings to your own observations?
You will enjoy it just as much, as the scope of the book broadens to human nature in general.

Are you a psych student?
Reading the Laughing Baby won’t feel like studying, yet you will learn so much.

 Are you already an expert in the field?
The link that Caspar establishes between key concepts in developmental psychology and laughter will not fail to make you see things from a different perspective.

As every great book, it comes with personal anecdotes. Caspar has a remarkable number of exciting adventures to share with us including stories about his interactions with eminent researchers in the field. Special shoutout to our own Denis with this quote: “I vividly remember being taught in Denis Mareschal’s undergraduate class that you could leave a newborn baby dangling by its own grip from a washing line if you wanted. I have yet to meet anyone who has tried this and I don’t recommend it.” (I don’t want to spoil more contents but hope this will pique your curiosity).

Finally, societal implications of developmental findings aren’t ignored, with mentions to works highlighting the benefits for children of public investment in quality day care.

I only regret that among the fascinating digressions beyond babies, there weren’t comments about the emergence of children’s humour understanding and production abilities later in development. To be fair, it’s probably too much to fit in one book (let’s hope for a part 2!)

Babbling more about this beautiful book would only delay what you ought to be doing now: get The Laughing baby if you haven’t got a copy yet. If you are still hesitant, maybe try a free sample. While you are waiting for your copy to arrive, Penny wrote an excellent primer on babies’ humour right on this MOTION blog. Caspar also gave a fascinating TEDx talk. And last but not least, he hasn’t paid me to write this blog!


Photo by Larry Crayton on Unsplash.

Do babies know if you are a helpful person? Here’s what we found.

[By: Sayaka Kidby]

You may have heard the phrase that babies are little scientists or active learners. They seem to be dependent upon other people in so many ways; they need to be fed, they need to be moved (before they start crawling) and they need to be soothed when they get upset. But at the same time, they have this remarkable ability to learn an incredible amount by looking around the world and hearing other people.

What is impressive is that they do not seem to simply take in everything they see or hear [1]. Previous research has shown that babies and toddlers can choose whom to learn from. For example, copying other people’s behaviour (imitation) is an important way of learning for little ones. They only imitate actions of those who previously performed it competently and confidently, but not actions of those who seemed uncertain about what they were doing [1,2].

Much less is known about whether this selective learning occurs in much younger babies, whose motor skills are still limited.

Read moreDo babies know if you are a helpful person? Here’s what we found.

Home (not) alone – how did children deal with quarantine?

[By: Penny Bounia-Mastrogianni] 

For some of us MOTION early-stage researchers, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was accompanied by moving back to our home countries in a rush and under great uncertainty. I decided to return to Greece and to my family, where, by interacting with my very young sister and other families with children, I realized how many children and adolescents probably had a much harder time mentally coping with the situation than us adults. So I decided to write some thoughts on this challenging reality that many parents and caregivers faced and keep facing.

Read moreHome (not) alone – how did children deal with quarantine?

On the importance of speaking the language of the country you live in

[By: Valentina Barone]

When we decided to become a part of the MOTION Project, it was clear to all of us we would move from our own country. We knew we were leaving there our families, our friends, our favourite food, our MOTHER TONGUE.

From my point of view, the first elements were the ones I was worried about: how much I would miss my mom, my grandma’s pasta, having “aperitivo” with my friends. The idea of living in a country of which I couldn’t understand the official language was almost completely ignored by the naive Valentina I was in the Autumn of 2018.

I thought it was something completely normal, something not that relevant, that could have been overcome without difficulties. Many people I know emigrate to countries where the language spoken doesn’t even share a word with their own mother tongue. How could that possibly have been tough for me, moving to the Netherlands, a country where the language has so many common elements with my beloved Italian? Well, it turned out I was mostly wrong about it.

Read moreOn the importance of speaking the language of the country you live in

The science of Duplo: How blocks can help us understand action planning in young children.

[By: Lisanne Schröer]

Duplo or Lego blocks may have been one of your favourite toys when you were younger. A couple of blocks could create a castle, rocket or boat, with just your imagination as limit to your creations. But these fun blocks can also be very useful for research purposes. For example, Duplo construction blocks can provide us with the ideal way to investigate action planning while keeping our cute little participants entertained.

Read moreThe science of Duplo: How blocks can help us understand action planning in young children.

The keys to a successful collaboration

[By: Julia Mermier] 

This post relates my experience of collaboration with Joanna – the MOTION PhD student from Radboud University – and what I think is essential to make a collaboration successful.

The choice of the collaborator
One of the key to a successful collaboration is the choice of a good work partner. You might have the best research project in the world, if your partner is not competent or if you’re not work-compatible, your project might fail. In the case of the MOTION project, the task wasn’t too hard, as I immediately got along – on a working and personal point of view – with most of the other PhD students. In the end, Joanna and I decided to start a collaboration, as we had the most common interests. And it turned out to be a great choice, as we’re currently carrying out our study together in my university in Milan.

So, how to find the ideal collaborator? First, you have to find someone who has the same scientific interests as you, and who wants to work on the same topic. Then, of course, you also need someone who has good research skills, ideally complementary to yours. But outside of the practical aspects, the personal side is also essential for a successful collaboration.  Working with someone you get along with, with whom you can communicate and work efficiently, but also sit back and laugh when needed, is very important. Because you will spent a lot of time together, and because there will always be difficulties to overcome. Doing all of this in a good atmosphere is so much easier!

Read moreThe keys to a successful collaboration

Why we want to research baby brains?

[By: Sayaka Kidby]

In my last blog post, I wrote about the difficulties of collecting good brain data from babies. It is a challenge, so you may have been thinking, why bother at all?

Some people say babies are boring – they look like doing nothing other than staring (and crying, sleeping and being fed). For me, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Babies are always looking, listening and learning. In short, there is always something going on in their brain. We collect brain data to find out exactly what is happening.

Read moreWhy we want to research baby brains?