Susan Birch

Associate Professor

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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision (Jan 2008 - Nov 2020)
A systematic analysis of the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' task in children and what it means for understanding social perspective taking (2015)

How well we understand social perspective taking is intricately linked to how well we assess this ability; however, there are factors that can influence its assessment, altering how we conceptualize social perspective taking and its development. The goal of the current dissertation was to systematically analyze one of the most popular measures of social perspective taking in children, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes task, by examining three specific measurement issues—what is being measured, response format, and coding scheme—to determine how these issues impact our understanding of social perspective taking more generally. Methods: Three studies were conducted with 249 children aged 4 to 13, including 54 children at-risk for affective perspective taking deficits. Two response formats (forced-choice vs. open-ended) and two coding schemes (term specific vs. valenced) were systematically compared on performance, relations to other abilities, and efficacy at measuring cognitive versus affective perspective taking. Comparison measures included dispositional empathy, cognitive perspective taking, and verbal ability. Results: There was a significant effect of response format, with the forced-choice format related to both cognitive and verbal abilities, suggesting that its performance is more apt to be influenced, unnecessarily, by the participants’ vocabulary knowledge or use of alternate strategies. Furthermore, the forced-choice format was unrelated to dispositional empathy and cognitive perspective taking and failed to differentiate typically-developing from at-risk children. In contrast, the open-ended format was significantly related to dispositional empathy and differentiated at-risk from typically-developing children. Taken together these results a) raise concerns about the use of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes task as a measure of cognitive perspective taking and b) reveal that an open-ended format provides a better measure of affective perspective taking than the forced-choice format. The effect of coding scheme was less clear, with evidence that term-specific coding was linked to vocabulary knowledge only in typically-developing children and only in a forced-choice response format. Implications: Findings are discussed in terms of implications on the type of information that can be gleaned from the Reading the Mind in the Eyes task and their relevance for studying social perspective taking more generally.

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Variations in children's use of individuals' past accuracy (2013)

Young children learn an abundance of information about the world from other people. Yet, people sometimes provide inaccurate or questionable information. Hence, when learning from others, it is advantageous to be selective and evaluate the likely accuracy of the information and its source. Previous research has shown that preschool-age children can attend to a variety of cues indicative of others’ knowledge and use those cues to guide their learning. Yet, just because children can use knowledge cues to guide their selective learning does not mean that they do so, or even should do so, in all circumstances. The present research assessed children's understanding of whether these cues predict a person’s future knowledge of different types of information by examining variations in children’s use of an individual's past accuracy depending on the type of information being learned. Experiments 1 to 3 demonstrated that 4-year-olds generalized past accuracy in a savvy way, using it to moderate their learning across different types of objective information but abstaining from generalizing to situations involving subjective information. In contrast, 3-year-olds (Experiments 1-2) used past accuracy narrowly, failing to generalize an individual’s past accuracy in one area of knowledge to situations that involved learning in another area of knowledge. Experiments 4 and 5 investigated whether children ages 4 to 7 understand that past accuracy demonstrated with generalizable, or category-level, information is a useful predictor of other generalizable knowledge but not of idiosyncratic, or instance-specific, knowledge. Children used an individual’s past accuracy to decide whether or not to learn generalizable information from that individual or from a different source, but wisely disregarded past accuracy when learning idiosyncratic information. Experiments 6 and 7 further demonstrated that 4- and 5-year-olds are more likely to use past accuracy when learning generalizable than idiosyncratic information and appropriately use others’ information access to predict their idiosyncratic knowledge. Overall, this research demonstrates that preschool- and early-school-age children possess a nuanced understanding of the predictive value of knowledge cues for different types of knowledge. The implications of these results for children’s developing understanding of the mind and other aspects of social cognition are discussed.

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