Senior to explore children’s personality traits in independent study

By Samantha Brandbergh

Over the course of the semester, one student will conduct research to better understand children’s thought process.

Senior psychology major Alanna D’Avanzo is currently in the beginning stages of an independent study focusing on deception and personality in preschool-aged children.

The study will consist of tasks for the children to complete, followed by a questionnaire, specifically designed for them. The questions will range from “I never lie” to “I sometimes don’t tell the truth,” which will reflect the children’s personality.

D’Avanzo’s independent study will ask the question “What will children do in order to please others?” with the help of two puppets, Friendly Caterpillar and Mean Snake.

“I’m going to tell them to hide ‘treasure’ under one of four bowls, and I’m going to tell them the good puppet will let them keep the treasure, but the mean puppet won’t,” D’Avanzo said. “Who are you going to let see the treasure?” D’Avanzo plans on using pennies wrapped in tin foil to better resemble “real treasure.”

D’Avanzo’s mentor, Cara DiYanni, associate professor of psychology, helped pique her interest in deception and personality when she assisted the professor on another research project.

“DiYanni has done research in the past on imitation with kids, and now she’s working on language and how it plays a role in social desirability,” D’Avanzo said. “That’s a study I’m also working on with her. So she kind of inspired me and got my wheels turning.”

DiYanni’s research has been evolving over a 15-year period and involves crushing cookies. The children must choose which object they believe will complete the task more efficiently: a ball of pom-poms or a hard, hammer-like object.

The study aims to see which children will rebel by using the hammer-like object, even if they are told the pom-poms are the more popular method, and who will conform.

By assisting DiYanni, D’Avanzo realized she wanted to take things a step further when researching social desirability.  “[She] was interested in personality aspect, and looking at the aspect of what motivates kids,” DiYanni said.

In the study, D’Avanzo is also going to test whether or not deception relates to personality by using three toys: Doc Hudson from the movie “Cars,” Dory from “Finding Dory” and Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.”

After hiding the Dory toy, D’Avanzo “will tell the children to guess which toy [is] hidden, but I will ask them not to look before they guess.” She will then leave the room to “make a phone call.” The children will then be videotaped, with parental consent, to see if they peek or not.

“If they peek at the item, that doesn’t mean they’re a bad person, but they want to get the answer right,” she said. “It’s going to help us see if deception is purely cognitive or if there’s some personality involved in it.” Cognition can be described as the mental process of knowing, perception and judgement.

This is D’Avanzo’s second independent study, and her experience in research has earned her acceptance into Rider’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program for graduate school.

She stressed the importance of independent studies by saying, “You really get to work one on one with the professor, and getting that individualized attention is so valuable. It’s really important to make those relationships with professors because they have so much to offer us.”

While her independent study is still in its early stages, D’Avanzo said that the most challenging aspect so far is finding children to recruit.

While D’Avanzo couldn’t disclose which schools the children will be recruited from, she said she will be contacting schools in Mercer and Somerset county.

“That is a difficult process, to call these preschools and ask for permission to come in,” she said. “I’m actually really fortunate — DiYanni has a lot of great relationships with preschools in the area, so that has helped me tremendously. My aunt is also a preschool teacher. It wouldn’t be possible without that.”

By mentoring students in their independent studies, DiYanni is able to assist in honing in on what aspects of psychology they are curious about.

“I work with them to take a topic they’re interested in,” DiYanni explained. “[D’Avanzo] was always interested in how students understand other people. So, they come up with the idea, I just guide them to what’s realistic for one semester — How much data can you collect? How many people we do need to recruit? What questions do we ask? What are the ethical standards to get it approved?”

Once the logistics are finalized and D’Avanzo has finished recruiting 40 children and obtaining permission from both school and parents, she and DiYanni will meet again to put a data set together, enter the data and analyze it to draw their conclusions.

The data will be entered into SPSS, a statistics software D’Avanzo described as “Excel on steroids.”

“I’m definitely hoping that we will see that personality is related to deception and that it’s not purely based on cognition,” D’Avanzo said. “I’m hoping to see a link there.”

However, once the data is collected by the end of the semester, some questions may be left unanswered.

“Even if there is some sort of relationship there, this is a very small-scale study, so we can’t be sure,” D’Avanzo added. “More research is going to have to be done in that area.”




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